Horns Lose In First Round Heartbreaker

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A state tournament opening round football game pitting Payson against Safford might go down in Longhorn annals with the title of a 1967 Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western -- "The Good, Bad and the Ugly."

The good is that senior tailback Luke Apfel surpassed the magical 2,000 yard mark rushing for 193 to improve his season's total to 2,087.

The bad is Payson's season and pursuit of a state championship came to an end with a heartbreaking 15-14 loss to the Bulldogs.

The ugly is the Horns two turnovers, seven penalties and an officiating crew that drew the ire of coach Jerry Rhoades and his staff.

Rendering the loss most difficult to absorb for the coaches, players and fans is that the Horns appeared to have had a win sewed up midway through the final quarter.

"We're leading 14-3 with eight minutes left and we didn't win," Rhoades said. "It was gut wrenching, our season should not have ended."

The Safford rally began with 7:41 remaining in the fourth quarter when Dog signal caller Justin Gaethje hooked up with Andrew Angle on a 60-yard scoring strike that closed Payson's lead to 14-9.

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Longhorn defenders Steele Armstrong (62), Donald Engler (64) and Cash Armstrong (35) team up to bring down a Safford Bulldog running back. Action took place during the Horns' 15-14 loss to the Bulldogs in the first round of the state tournament.

Only four minutes later, Gaethje again passed to Angle for 41 yards and another touchdown. The strike capped a Safford five-play, 90-yard drive.

Safford went for two on the conversion, but the pass attempt was not good.

Although the Horns had a last gasp chance at a rally following the ensuing kickoff, four consecutive plays netted a minus nine yards.

With 2:05 to go, the Horns turned over the ball on downs and all hopes for a visit to the second round of the state tournament vanished.

Safford ran out the clock on five plays that went for 17 yards.

Payson's two scores came in the third quarter after Safford had taken a 3-0 lead into the halftime locker room.

With 8:27 on the clock, Apfel capped a seven-play, 59-yard run with a 28-yard scoring scamper. Nate Doyle booted the extra point.

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Sophomore quarterback B.J. Hill (10) readies for a pass attempt on a sprint out play.

About seven minutes later, sophomore quarterback B.J. Hill churned into the end zone from five yards away. Doyle again kicked the extra.

Throughout the hard-hitting game, Longhorn linebacker Cash Armstrong played with casts on both his hands and wrists.

Only three days prior to the showdown, Armstrong underwent surgery to have a plate installed in one wrist.

"He was hurt, but he played great," defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes said.

Dogs advance, Payson through

With Safford's victory, the Dogs advance to second round play Nov. 11 against the Winslow Bulldogs at Mesa Community College.

Payson wraps up the season with a 7-4 record and a share of the East region championship.

Blue Ridge, Round Valley and Payson tied for the crown, with 4-1 records.

Although the Horns wrapped up the season as an East co-champ, the team didn't have the luxury of opening the tournament at home against a lower seed as most champs do.

In a coin flip to determine the East's three seeds, Payson lost and fell all the way to third. Which meant, the Horns had to open the state tournament with a disadvantageous road game.

Safford coach Mike Dorrell thinks being forced to travel might have been the difference between a win and a loss.

"Any time you don't have to take a 3-1/2 hour bus ride, that's a positive," he said. "The kids can go through a normal day, and we won't have to alter what we usually do on Fridays."

All that's left for Payson players is the season-ending awards banquet, which is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 8 at a site yet to be determined.

There, Rhoades will announce the players selected by coaches to the all-region first, second and honorable mention teams.

The East region Player of the Year and those seniors selected to participate in the Arizona Coaches Association East vs. West All-Star game will also be made public.

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