Players on the two Payson Little League All-Star teams are about to jump-start a memorable journey that can only be enjoyed in small town America.
They'll play in tournaments against all-stars who they likely will be locking horns with for the next six or seven years.
Their opponents in the Little League championships are from Blue Ridge, Show Low and other towns whose high schools are members of the 3A conference, East region and the White Mountain Middle School League. PHS is also a member of the East region and White Mountain League.
In the future, today's Payson all-stars might find themselves looking back at the 2006 tournament and saying, "I remember him from my Little League days."
And when they've long graduated from high school and are growing long in the tooth, some of the memories they share with their children will be those of the rivals they grew to know through many seasons of competition.
It's a phenomenon unique to small towns, especially the East region, which has been home to many of the same schools for decades.
In the metropolitan 5A schools where conferences are much larger and thousands of students participate in sports, athletes might compete against another one, two or three times during the course of their careers.
But in 3A high schools, athletes sometimes compete against one another in as many as three sports and several times in the course of a school year.
Sometimes the rivalries can become outwardly fierce as opponents try to gain the upper hand on one another and earn bragging rights.
In the early 1980s, Tim Landers was a star three-sport athlete in Round Valley. Early on, Payson area athletes knew of his reputation and looked forward to the challenge of competing against him.
I refereed a fierce summer league high school basketball game in which the 6 foot 4 inch, 240 pound Landers dealt out his fare share of punishment to local players.
As seasons wore on, Landers competed against Payson athletes in football, basketball and track and field.
When Payson High met Round Valley in the 1986 state championship football game, local players had a final opportunity to battle their longtime rival.
Landers went on to star at Arizona State University and become a law enforcement officer.
His tragic death in an automobile accident several years ago stirred fond memories in some of his former Rim Country opponents.
At the time, they said they felt a type of bond with Landers. They had built up a genuine respect for him during the seasons they donned opposite-colored jerseys whether it was in Little League, youth football, middle school or high school.
NFL Flag Football
Registration for NFL Flag Football continues through July 26. The league is for boys and girls ages 6 through 14. The cost is $25 per player. The league begins Monday, Aug. 28. There is no late registration for this league.
For more information, call the Payson Parks and Recreation Department at (928) 474-5242, ext. 7.