The never-say-die Longhorns came up just short of pulling off the upset of the year Friday evening in PHS stadium.
Trailing the fourth ranked Show Low Cougars 21-6 in the fourth quarter, the Horns rallied late for 15 points to close the cat's lead to 24-21.
The clash climaxed during a field goal attempt with 1:50 remaining, which, if successful, would have tied the score and forced overtime. But, Nate Doyle's 50-yard attempt was off target and the Horns ended the season with a disappointing three-point loss.
Following the miss, Show Low took possession and rather anti-climactically used the last three plays to run out the clock and preserve the victory.
With the loss, the Longhorns' up-and-down season came to an end. Under first year coach Josh Anderson, the Horns compiled a 4-6 overall record, 2-4 in the East.
Show Low (8-1; 5-1) advances to the Class 3A state tournament as the East region's No. 2 seed and will play against the North's third seed.
The Round Valley Elks (10-0; 6-0) will open state play as the East champion and host the North's fourth place finisher.
Blue Ridge (7-3; 4-2) whipped Snowflake (4-6; 3-3) by a 28-18 count Friday to take the East's third seed.
In the first round of the state tournament, Blue Ridge will play the North's second seed and Snowflake will challenge the North region champion.
All games will be played at 7 p.m. Nov. 3 at the home site of the highest seed.
Horns' rally cut short
In the Longhorns' heartbreaking loss to Show Low, the highly favored Cougars lit up the scoreboard first on a 40-yard TD pass from Jarred MacArthur to Jordan Nicholas. MacArthur also toed the extra point.
The Horns retaliated with a 10-play, 78-yard drive that was capped by a five-yard TD pass from signal caller Ridge Halenar to Zach Brooks. The two-point conversion attempt failed.
In the second stanza, the Cougars scored two touchdowns on Derrick Brewer's runs of 12 and 10 yards to take a 21-6 lead into halftime. Both teams failed to score in the third quarter, setting up what was to be a wild and wooly last stanza.
The nail biting began with 7:52 remaining when tailback B.J. Hill scampered 10 yards to pay dirt. The two-point conversion pass attempt was good to close the Cougar's lead to 21-14. The score also seemed to breathe life into what was a dying victory effort.
Only minutes later, however, the scrappy Cougars responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by MacArthur's 29-yard field goal.
Few knew at that moment that the kick would be the game winner. With the Horns trailing 24-14 and 2:24 remaining in the game, Anderson broke out the trick playbook.
On the play, Hill -- the Horns quarterback last year -- hooked up, on a tailback option pass, with wide receiver Miles Huff. The scoring strike covered 54 yards and, along with Doyle's conversion, pulled Payson to within 24-21.
Payson had a TD scoring opportunity late in the game, but a well-thrown pass trickled off the fingers of a receiver.
Ultimately, the Horns spirited rally was too little, too late as the cats rode their 15-point halftime advantage to the "W."
Fans who want to look back on the season and see just where Payson's playoff hopes took a hit should reflect on a gut-wrenching 22-21 loss to the Snowflake Lobos.
In the Sept. 22 defeat, the Horns held a 15-0 halftime lead, but were outscored 14-0 in the final quarter.
Had Payson been able to hold onto that victory, the Horns would now be preparing to enter the state playoffs rather than planning an equipment check-in.
The good news for Horns fans is that this year's team was one of the youngest in the region, with many sophomores holding down starting position.
Next season, when those players return with an added year of maturity and strength, the Horns could be looking at a region championship.
But title hopes will depend on how dedicated the players are to the weight room and conditioning during the coming months. Consider this old coaching adage: Championships are not won during the season. Championships are won in the off season.