A sweep of the two most prestigious postseason awards in the 3A East region has thrust the Payson High School football program into the spotlight of prep sports.
In a voting of East region head coaches held at Hondah Resort near Pinetop-Lakeside, Jerry Rhoades was named the "Coach of the Year" and Luke Apfel selected "Player of the Year."
Earning the honors is a huge accomplishment for both Rhoades and Apfel in that PHS -- often considered a step-child when conference and region alignments are assigned -- had just returned to the tight-knit 3A East after a two-year stint in the 4A Grand Canyon region.
At the onset of the year, few expected the Longhorns to become an instant title contender in one of the most competitive football regions in the state.
Almost no one expected PHS to step over longtime East powers Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Show Low to produce both the coach and player of the year.
Rhoades led the Longhorns to a 7-4 record, a share of the East region title with Blue Ridge and Round Valley and a berth in the state tournament.
The highlights of the regular season might have been the Horns' pulsating 17-14 homecoming win over Fountain Hills and a 14-7 win at Snowflake.
In the Sept. 30 homecoming victory, Nate Doyle toed a 24-yard field goal with 23 seconds remaining to nail down the victory.
The Horns 14-7 triumph at Snowflake a week earlier represented the first time in the history of the PHS football program that the Longhorns whipped the Lobos on their home turf.
It was also just the Horn varsity team's second-ever win over Snowflake.
Payson's season came to a screeching halt in the first round of the state tournament with a gut-wrenching 15-14 loss to Safford.
For Apfel, the POY award marks the culmination of a banner season in which he staked his claim to being Payson High School's best-ever running back.
When old-timers gather, it is usually only Tom Fruth who is mentioned in the same breath with Apfel.
Fruth led the Longhorns to the 1981 state championship and later had his jersey number (11) officially retired.
The fact Apfel was able to rush for 2,068 yards when the Longhorns had absolutely no passing attack to take the pressure off him is a testament to his ability. The Horns threw for just 218 yards the entire season.
"We were pretty one-dimensional, Luke had a target on him week in and week out," Rhoades said. "Everyone wanted to stop him, but no one did."
Apfel -- relying on a dashing, twisting elusive style of running -- finished as the third leading rusher in Arizona. The top ground gainer, a North Canyon running back, piled up 2,250 yards, but had 14 games to accomplish it.
A pair of Apfel's finest performances were turned in during the homecoming win over Fountain Hills and in a crucial late season showdown against Round Valley.
In leading the Horns to the homecoming triumph, he rushed for 300 yards and scored both PHS touchdowns.
Just weeks later, he piled up a school record 384 yards in the Horns 35-3 upset of Round Valley.
"I think that was my best game. It was fun out there," he said.
Most impressive about Apfel's winning of the POY is the hands-down manner in which he captured it.
Usually, the battle for POY honors turns into a skirmish among voting coaches, each of whom believes his athlete is most deserving.
In this year's voting, there was no discussion about who the recipient should be.
"They put his name up and that was about it, no controversy at all," Rhoades said.
In addition to being named coach and player of the year, Rhoades and Apfel will appear in the Arizona Coaches Association 1A-3A North vs. South All-Star game June 16 at Surprise Stadium.
Apfel will be a member of the North team and Rhoades will help coach the stars along with Winslow's Adam Larsen.
PHS linebacker Cash Armstrong will join the two on the North team.
The trio was selected to the all-star team in a voting of ACA members Dec. 4 at Mesa Dobson High School.