Longhorn hopes for a berth in the postseason playoffs died Friday inside the country's only domed high school football stadium.
In the Ensphere in Springerville-Eagar, it was a 28-3 loss to the homestanding Round Valley Elks that eliminated Payson (4-5 overall, 2-3 in the East) from state tournament contention.
Round Valley's victory also nailed down the East title for the Elks (9-0 and 5-0) and ended a decade in which RV has struggled to regain the football glory it harbored in the 1970s and 80s under legendary coach Tot Workman.
Ironically, the last state championship contender the Elks fielded was the Tim Landers-led 1986 crew that was ousted from the 3A semifinals by a 15-3 loss to the Longhorns.
Following Workman's unceremonious departure from RVHS, coach after coach -- including former Payson teacher and coach Shaun Hardt -- tried to duplicate Workman's football wizardry without much success.
Finally, Russ Semore arrived on the RVHS scene three years ago to help lead the Elks back to the gridiron Promised Land.
Cougars on deck
With the Longhorns eliminated from the state tournament, coach Josh Anderson must find a way to motivate his players for an Oct. 27 regular-season ending showdown against Show Low.
Kick off is at 7 p.m. in Longhorn stadium.
The Cougars enter the East skirmish with a 7-1 overall record and 4-1 in the region. The Cats' only loss this season was to the Elks. There are those spectators in the White Mountains who say the Cougars have improved enough since that Sept. 15 loss (by a 27-6 score) to give the Elks a much better battle if the two meet again in the state tournament.
In Round Valley's win over Payson, Semore's strategy was to use a spread offense and then run the Elks stable of talented backs straight at outmanned PHS defenders.
The tactics allowed RV to rack up 255 yards rushing on 29 attempts.
The East's leading rusher, Round Valley's Justin Crick upped his season yardage total to 1086 and got the Elks off and running by scoring the game's first touchdown with 5:10 remaining in the first quarter.
The Elks tacked on another touchdown in the first quarter and then single touchdowns in the second and third stanza before coasting to the win.
Payson's lone score, a 27-yard field goal by Nate Doyle, capped a seven play, 73-yard second quarter drive.
For the Horns, sophomore quarterback Ridge Halenar picked up 95 yards on a team leading 22 carries. He also completed three of 12 pass attempts but had three intercepted.
Halenar is now the third leading passer in the East region with 846 yards. Round Valley's Trevor Nicoll is the passing leader with 1,318 yards. In second is Snowflake's Derek Fusselman (926),
With RVHS set to take the East's No. 1 seed to state and Show Low entering the post season as No. 2, Blue Ridge and Snowflake, both 3-2, will battle Friday for the third and fourth berths to state.
If the Longhorns somehow upset Round Valley and improve to 3-3 in the East, PHS would tie for fourth in the final standings with the loser of the Blue Ridge vs. Snowflake game.
However, PHS would still not go to state because both Blue Ridge and Snowflake own the tiebreaker results of head-to-head confrontations.
Snowflake beat Payson 22-21 on Sept. 22 and BR waylaid the Horns 40-0 on Oct. 13.