A 28-26 regular season-ending victory over the Show Low Cougars has earned the Payson Longhorns a share of the East region championship and a third place seed to state.
The Horns are tied in the final standings with Blue Ridge and Round Valley -- all sport region leading 5-1 records.
PHS opens pursuit of the school's third state football championship Nov. 4 in Safford. The home-standing Bulldogs enter the state fray as the South region runner-up.
Payson fell from a possible No. 1 seed to No. 3 as a result of a coin flip that took place during a three-way conference call Oct. 25, originating in the office of Holbrook High School Athletic Director Paul DeMuth.
On the first "odd team No. 1 flip," Round Valley was the odd side of the coin and received the first seed.
On the next flip, involving Blue Ridge and Payson, PHS athletic director Dave Bradley made the losing "heads" call and the Yellow Jackets will go to state as the East's No. 2 team.
RV squares off in the state's opening round, in Lakeside, against South No. 4 finisher Florence.
Defending state champion Blue Ridge plays host to Chandler Seton Catholic.
All first round state games will be played Nov. 4 at the home site of the higher seed.
For Longhorn coach Jerry Rhoades, reviewing films of Safford is much like looking in a mirror.
"They look like us," he said. "They have a running back that is a lot like Tyler Williams."
Williams, a former Longhorn fullback, who graduated last spring, was one of the most hard-nosed runners in the state.
"He (the Safford back) is not a game breaker like Luke (Apfel) but he'll get the tough yards for you," Rhoades said.
The Horns will counter with the elusive Apfel, a senior tailback, who will be looking to break the 2,000 yard rushing milestone.
Official stats show Apfel has rushed for 1894 yards on 228 carries. His 8.2 yards per carry average is among the best in the state.
D-line steps up
As good as Apfel is, the Horns might not have returned from Show Low Oct. 28 with a victory over the Cougars had it not been for defensive stalwarts Kevin Allen, Zach Rodgers, Steele Armstrong and others.
The front line defenders ganged up to stop a Show Low dive play off a veer that, if successful, would have tied the score at 28-28 and created a need for a playoff.
With 1:31 remaining in the game, Show Low quarterback Skippy Holladay, son of SLHS athletic director Chris Holladay, hooked up with Derek Brewer on a TD aerial that pulled the Cats to within 28-26.
Because Show Low had not made good on extra point attempts in the third and fourth quarters, the Cougars were forced to go for two points and a tie.
With the game on the line, the Horn defensive front stepped up to stop the Show Low dive play for no-gain.
In defending the conversion, defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes gambled by pinching his defensive line and blitzing his Mike linebacker.
"I guessed right," Hayes said.
Also, Payson sophomore quarterback B.J. Hill turned in probably the finest performance of his short career.
Through the airways, he completed five of seven passes for 101 yards, but did have an interception.
In the Horns' potent ground game, Apfel finished with 156 yards and fullback Shelton Keith contributed 63.
If the Longhorns have a weakness they have to shore up before the opening round of state, it will be ball security. Payson fumbled six times and recovered only three.
Payson, 7-3 overall, opens state play as the No. 4-ranked 3A team. Blue Ridge (9-1) is No. 1, Coolidge (9-1) No. 2 and Round Valley (7-3) is ranked fifth.