Standout performances were the rule rather than the exception in the Payson Longhorns' 39-12 season opening clubbing of the Glendale Cortez Colts.
The game, played Friday before a sell-out crowd in PHS stadium, marked Payson High's official entrance into the 4A conference. For the past two decades, Payson has been a member of the 3A conference, which was known as 1A when PHS first joined. Increased enrollment last school year propelled the Longhorns into the big school ranks.
Among the standouts lauded by coaches at the conclusion of the impressive win was junior fullback James Gibson.
Filling in for injured starter Tyler Williams, Gibson turned in a commendable showing, highlighted by his three kickoff returns for 92 yards. His longest effort was a 37-yard run. Running trap plays in the Longhorn Wing-T offense, Gibson churned out 48 tough yards in 12 carries.
In the Longhorns' eight-play, 52-yard third quarter drive, Gibson capped the effort with a three-yard run to pay dirt. His TD upped the Horn lead to 25-6 and issued a statement that the team was not about to be intimidated by Cortez's huge front four that averaged 240 pounds per player.
According to official PHS stats, Gibson also had two pass receptions for 50 yards.
Coaches also praised the efforts of sophomore running back Luke Apfel who rushed 23 times for 150 yards and a touchdown.
His lone TD, a 26-yard scamper, culminated a seven-play, 49-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter. Apfel's longest run on the evening was a twisting, turning 60-yard effort.
Senior J.R. Szabo, one of the team's hardest workers in the off season, turned in his share of heroics.
After receiving the starting nod at quarterback, Szabo engineered the Longhorns on a four-play, 75-yard drive, capped by his 13-yard scramble into the end zone. The score, which came with 7:53 remaining in the first quarter, gave the Horns a 6-0 lead.
After being replaced at quarterback by Donnie Wilbanks, Szabo took over at tight end. There he caught a 20-yard scoring pass from Wilbanks that broke a 6-6 tie and gave Payson a lead it never relinquished.
Wilbanks also had a solid evening at the signal caller position completing five of 10 passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly he was not intercepted.
Wideout Mark McRae was on the receiving end of one of Wilbanks' scoring passes. The 19-yard TD catch, which lifted Payson to an 18-6 halftime lead, came with 2:24 remaining in the second quarter.
Although the names of linemen Don Engler, Kevin Allen, Greg Barnes, Kyle Sachak, Nick Degroot and Adam Munson don't appear frequently in game ending stats, it was that crew of roughnecks that manhandled Cortez up front.
Looking to improve
If there was one statistic that stands out for members of the coaching staff, it would be in time of possession. The Colts controlled the pigskin for 38:46. Payson had it for only 21:14. Down the road, the Longhorns will want to control the ball for longer periods and keep it out of the hands of some of the high-powered offenses that exist in the 4A conference.
Although Payson has a bye this week and won't return to action until Sept. 12 at Apache Junction, the coaching staff will be working to shore up a defensive secondary that gave up 206 yards and one TD to the Colts.
An obvious shortcoming, which was partly corrected at halftime, was in the middle of Payson's two-deep coverage where the Cortez tight end loved to roam.
First-year coach Jerry Rhoades is mulling over several position changes to help correct the problem. The coach could also be leaning toward adding several other deep converges to the PHS secondary.