Proof the Payson Longhorns can compete successfully in the 4A conference might lie in Friday evening's 39-12 season opening drubbing of Glendale Cortez.
In front of a vocal band of Longhorns supporters that filled PHS stadium to capacity, the young Rim country gridders demoralized a Cortez team that outweighed Payson's front line by more than 40-pounds per player.
Rendering the win even more impressive was the fact it was accomplished without the services of the Horns two most seasoned players -- tight end Mike Barr and fullback Tyler Williams. Both were All-East selections last season and invited to an elite college prep summer training camp held on the campus of the University of Southern California.
Barr was sidelined with broken ribs and other injuries he suffered in a personal watercraft accident two weeks ago at Roosevelt Lake.
Williams was out of action due to an ankle injury incurred in a preseason scrimmage last week in Snowflake.
It is unknown when either will return to the lineup.
In Barr's absence, J. R. Szabo -- who played quarterback most of the spring and summer -- stepped in to fill the void admirably. In addition to turning in a solid performance as a blocking tight end in the Horns Wing-T offense, Szabo made a twisting, turning TD catch in the first half that had fans on their feet cheering and coaches jumping for joy.
Like Szabo, junior fullback James Gibson -- a jayvee player much of last season -- refused to be denied in his first varsity starting assignment.
Without the hard running Williams in the game, some thought the Horns inside game -- which centers on trap plays -- would suffer.
Gibson proved those soothsayers completely off base by continually busting through the middle of the Cortez defense for long gains. About the only mistake Gibson made was a fumble on a punt return while he struggled to gain extra yardage.
On the Payson sidelines, Williams was among those impressed by Gibson's efforts.
"He's playing great," Williams said.
Although some of the credit for the victory goes to Szabo and Gibson, the offensive line of Kevin Allen, Greg Barnes, Kyle Sachak, Nick Degroot and Adam Munson must also be lauded for a solid performance up front.
Pitted against a huge Cortez defensive front, line coach Jack Morris' charges opened holes for Payson's running attack and protected quarterback Donnie Wilbanks on most of his pass attempts.
One of the biggest challenges the line faced was finding a way to block Cortez's talented middle linebacker who was stunting and blitzing on almost every snap of the ball. Gibson, who is a lead blocker on Payson's power plays, also had the assignment of taking on the middle backer.
By game's end, the efforts of the "O" line and Gibson had clearly taken their toll on the linebacker and entire Cortez defense.
Among those that thrived under the protection of the line was sophomore running back Luke Apfel.
The speedster, known more for his exploits as a sprinter on the track team than as a running back, pranced over, around and through a Cortez defense, which first-year PHS coach Jerry Rhoades had proclaimed as "very good."
If Apfel can avoid injuries, he showed the potential to become as good as former Longhorn greats Tom Fruth, Ty Chilson and Waylon Pettet.
When Payson went on the defensive, its newly installed 43 scheme was tough for Cortez to solve. Unable to run the ball against the Longhorns' solid front-four and trio of linebackers, the Colts brain trust turned to the passing game with mixed results.
The single greatest weak link in the Payson defense was the middle of the field where the Colts' tight end was allowed to roam freely. A few halftime adjustments quickly shored up the secondary that was anchored by Larry Wilbanks, Donnie Wilbanks, Ryan Theil and Szabo.
Following the game, during a team meeting on the goal line, Rhoades -- who calls the defense for the Longhorns -- told the players that the Colts' two touchdowns were the results of mistakes that can be corrected in this week's practice sessions.
Also during the jubilant post game celebration, the players sang the school's fight song and congratulated one another for a job well done.
With the Longhorns first-ever 4A football win in the record books, the team now begins preparations for the Apache Junction Prospectors. Game time is 7 p.m., Sept. 12 in Apache Junction. The game will be preceded by freshman and junior varsity contests Sept. 11 against Flagstaff Sinagua. The freshmen travel to Sinagua for a 4 p.m. kickoff. The junior varsity team hosts Sinagua at 6 p.m.
In other 4A games last Friday night involving Grand Canyon Region teams, Sinagua fell to Millennium 24-14, and Mingus beat Sandra Day O'Connor 49-3.