Around Arizona, the high school football scene is best described as "let the fun begin."
The gridiron jocularity is brought on by the annual state tournament that pits the best 16 Class 3A teams against one another in a win-or-go-home scenario.
For fans, players and coaches, regular season action pales in comparison to the frenzy, fuss and hullabaloo that occurs on the road to the elusive state title.
For the Longhorn football team (7-3 overall), co-champions of the East region along with Blue Ridge and Round Valley, the path to the school's third state title begins at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4 against the Safford Bulldogs.
In most gridiron outcomes, a regional co-champion would receive an advantageous home game in the opening round of the state tournament.
Payson, however, came out on the short end of a coin toss that was used to determine the East region's top three seeds.
Round Valley, the overall winner of the toss, received the first seed and will open at home against the South region's No. 4 finisher, Florence.
Blue Ridge took the second seed and will host South No. 3 Seton Catholic in the opening round.
The Horns fell to third in the coin flip and lost home field advantage.
Safford enters the state fracas as the South Region No. 2 seed behind once-beaten Coolidge.
If the Horns can cage the Bulldogs in the tournament opener, Payson would advance to the second round at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at Mesa College against the winner of a first round game between North champion Winslow and West No. 4 Sedona Red Rock.
If Winslow wins as expected, and Payson whips Safford, the second round game would pit two teams that clashed Sept. 1 in a nonregion match up.
In that game, the heroics of senior speedster Luke Apfel weren't enough to stymie a determined Winslow Bulldog team that turned big plays into a 34-21 win over the Horns.
"They beat us on three passes and three running plays," coach Jerry Rhoades said after the game. "Plus they won the field position battle all night long.
"I'll bet their average (field position) was usually about the 40-yard line."
Also in the nonregion clash, played in Winslow, the Dogs relied on smash-mouth, inside trap plays for their big gainers.
"Our defensive line got beat and the Mike (middle) backer was double-teamed," Rhoades said.
The middle linebacker in that game, Cash Armstrong, is sidelined with a broken wrist and has been replaced by his younger brother, Steele.
The Horns managed to keep the score close against Winslow on Apfel's two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
On the road to a third crown
If the Longhorns can leash the two Bulldog teams, Safford and Winslow, Payson will probably lock horns with Blue Ridge in the state semifinals. That game would be played 8 p.m. Nov. 18 at Mesa College.
A trio of tournament wins would propel the Longhorns to the state championship, which kicks off at 7:07 p.m. Nov. 26 at Tempe McClintock High School.
There, the Horns would have the opportunity to duplicate the achievements of the 1989 and 1981 teams and bring home a state championship.
If the current edition of the PHS football team bears a resemblance to its two state champion predecessors, it is that all three teams had an offensive star.
The 1981 team featured standout running back Tom Fruth; signal caller Hunter Walden led the 1989 squad; and the current team has been paced all season by the rushing of Apfel.
The speedy tailback is just 106 yards shy of the magical 2,000 yards rushing mark and is averaging a whopping 8.2 yards per carry.
Undoubtedly, he'll enter the tournament as a target for opposing defenses that will be out to corral his running antics.
Apfel and his teammates begin state play as the No. 4 ranked 3A team. Blue Ridge is No. 1, Coolidge No. 2, Winslow is No. 3 and Round Valley is ranked fifth.