Longhorns Shorthanded As Season Kicks Off

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A dwindling roster could force Longhorn football coach Jerry Rhoades to cancel the junior varsity football program.

"If I had the make the decision today, I would say ‘no jayvees'," he said. "But we'll wait a while before we do that."

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Monkey rolls are a conditioning drill the Payson High School Longhorn football coaches call upon to prepare the players for the upcoming season. The Horns will scrimmage Mingus at 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 19 on PHS field.

The coach has until Sept. 1 -- when the junior varsity opens the season in Payson against Winslow --o decide the fate of the team.

If he does disband the junior varsity, the sophomores who usually make up a jayvee squad would join the varsity, Rhoades said.

The possibility of not having an underclass team reared its ugly head last week when a lineup that once numbered 50-plus players dwindled to just 37.

"It's attrition, six quit and some others are injured," Rhoades said.

The good news in the program is that the coach might not have to worry about a troublesome problem that haunts most every high school coach -- academic ineligibilities.

"In the first weeks of schools we have had only 10 tardies and we don't have kids ditching class," Rhoades said. "We have been doing some discipline things that should really help out on and off the field."

The seeds to excel academically and athletically were planted in early August at a senior weekend retreat held on the Mogollon Rim.

Around a camp fire, the seniors settled on the team motto of "Stay the Course."

"(The players) have really taken to that," Rhoades said. "Players are coming to practice, working hard and know what's expected of them."

Fans will have the opportunity to preview the results of the commitment the players made at 7 p.m. Aug. 19 in Longhorn stadium against Mingus.

Although the clash is not a game, rather a controlled scrimmage, with no special team play and no score kept, it will afford the coaches the opportunity to plug the players into the positions they can best contribute to the team.

Rhoades said he and his staff will evaluate all the players during the scrimmage before settling on a starting lineup for the Aug. 26 season opener in Parker.

Possible starters at quarterback include a pair of sophomores -- B. J. Hill or Zack Brooks.

At running back, senior speedster Luke Apfel could be a candidate for postseason honors.

Also at the position, Branden McLaws is drawing praise.

"He's a great kid and does everything we ask of him," Rhoades said.

Cash Armstrong or Michael Young could get the starting nod at fullback.

The "X" or wide receiver slot, held by Derrick Hoosava and Miles Huff, could be the position Rhoades uses to run in offensive plays to the huddle.

At "Z" or wingback, Joe Blackburn returns after starting there last season.

Shane Brown, Tim Dixon and Rand Hallman are battling for the "Y" or tight end first team honors.

While offensive linemen don't receive much publicity, it is the efforts of those in the trenches that usually win the gridiron wars.

Along the line of scrimmage the Horns should be well manned with the likes of Kyle Allen (right tackle), Luke Runzo (right guard), Don Engler (center), Steel Armstrong (left guard) and Kevin Allen (left tackle).

In the crew, seniors Kevin Allen, Runzo and Engler are returning starters from last season. Kyle Allen is a sophomore and Armstrong only a freshman.

Other offensive line candidates include Ryan Avila, David Hill, Bryan Merritt and Nick Ford.

Defensively, Hoosava and Blackburn could get the starting call at cornerbacks. Expect the two to rotate sides of the field with Hoosava playing the short and Blackburn the wide.

At the safety positions, Chris Eavenson and Apfel could be the starters. Eavenson would be the "hero" or strong safety and Apfel the free safety.

McLaws is the projected starter at "Sam" or strong-side linebacker and Zack Rogers at "Willie" or weak-side.

The middle linebacker (Mike) slot will be held down by Cash Armstrong who started there last season as a junior.

The down linemen in Rhoades' 4-3 scheme could be Brown, Runzo, Engler and Kevin Allen.

For some in-the-trenches excitement, Longhorn fans might want to focus some of their attention on the nose tackle Kevin Allen.

"He is a heck of a nose," Rhoades said. "We'll ask him to just blow the center up."

When watching line play, fans will notice a new wrinkle in the Payson defense. Rhoades has installed a "flex," which is a variation of the basic 4-3 defense.

Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry designed the defense in the 1970s to stop Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns offense.

The schedule

During the season, the Longhorns will go toe-to-toe against some of the finest teams in the 3A conference.

Blue Ridge is the defending state champion, Snowflake is a perennial state contender and Fountain Hills, Round Valley and Winslow all earned state tournament berths last season. Fountain Hills was a No. 9 seed, Round Valley advanced as a No. 5, Winslow was No. 3 and Blue Ridge No. 1.

"We meet all those and they are all good teams," Rhoades said.

The only team that might not be a formidable East region squad is Alchesay Falcons, but that is not a given, because the Falcons play an unconventional style of freelance football that can be tough to defend.

In the season opener, Aug. 26 in Parker, the Horns will be facing a coach, Rich Hoyt, who is no stranger to Payson.

Hoyt, a member of the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame, had coaching stints at Williams, Winslow and Snowflake.

In the 1986 state championship, he coached Snowflake to a 7-0 victory over the Longhorns. While at Winslow in the early 1990s, his Bulldog teams battled several times with Payson.

Hoyt has been living in Idaho the past several years, but returned to Arizona to be near his grandchildren and try to inject life into the Parker football program.

Hoyt said he is looking forward to reviving the rivalries his teams once had with the Longhorns.

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