Severe cramps and less than stellar play by Longhorn reserves turned what appeared to be a Longhorn blowout of Fountain Hills into a relatively close game.
In the season opener for both teams on the Payson High School field Friday night, the Horns built a 28-0 lead early in the third quarter, then hung on for a 28-19 victory over the Falcons.
During Fountain Hills' spirited late rally, the Longhorns were without several starters who were on the sidelines, being treated for cramping problems.
Those maladies have coach Josh Anderson questioning the players eating and drinking habits.
"Nutrition played a big factor in that game because we were cramping up and Fountain Hills wasn't," he said.
"The heat didn't help, but our kids need to do a better job during the week of staying hydrated and eating healthier foods."
In an effort to correct the problems, Anderson has enlisted parental assistance.
"I have a parent working on a diet plan for the players to follow each week, so hopefully we'll be able to avoid such a situation in the future," he said.
Also slowing the Longhorn effort in the final quarter was the play of second teamers who were called upon to replace the cramping starters.
"I'll need to keep stressing to them that just because they don't start doesn't mean they are not important to the success of the team," Anderson said.
Most of the problems involved the reserves missing assignments.
"They have to remember who to block on what plays," Anderson said. "I just didn't like how much of a drop-off we have from starter to backup."
Dominating first half
As frustrating as fourth quarter play was for Payson, it was stellar offense and defense in the first half that has fans believing this team is bound for the postseason gridiron promised land.
In the first two quarters, Hayes's bandits never allowed the Falcons to cross midfield in four possessions. Also, FH picked up just two first downs and were thoroughly frustrated by Payson's hard-hitting defense.
Typical of the bone-jarring tackles was a hit by strong side linebacker Tyler Savage on an attempted FH screenplay. The one-on-one tackle not only sent the Falcon receiver tumbling, it generated "Ooos and Ahhs" from the Payson bleachers and groans from the FH stands.
Also leading the defensive charge most of the game was David Carlen, who was forced to move to "Willie" or weak side linebacker from the "Mike" or middle linebacker position due to injuries.
Carlen finished with a team high 12 tackles.
Savage had 11 tackles, three of which were unassisted.
While the Payson "D" was rock solid, the offense was lighting up the scoreboard. With 1:05 remaining in the first quarter, Ridge Halenar scored on a quarterback sneak that capped an about 45-yard drive.
Josh Frewin's conversion kick upped the Horn lead to 7-0.
For the evening, Frewin booted all four of his extra point attempts but missed a 35-yard field goal on a fourth and eight situation with 8:01 remaining in the opening half.
With 3:31 remaining in the first half, senior tailback B.J. Hill scored on an eight-yard run off an isolation play over right guard.
Minutes later, on the final play of the first half, with the Horn offense aligned in a spread formation and FH in a prevent defense, Halenar hooked up with sophomore tailback Brandon Alexander on a nifty 35-yard pass scoring play that pushed the PHS cushion to 21-0.
On the play and throughout the game, Alexander -- who led the team in rushing with 119 yards on nine carries -- gave Longhorn fans a glimpse of a teen who has the potential to be a good as some of the Horns finest including former standouts Waylon Pettet, Ty Chilson, Luke Apfle and Tom Fruth.
If Alexander -- the son of former Longhorn fullback and middle linebacker Greg Alexander -- can stay healthy, the Horns appear to have a thoroughbred racehorse in their stable capable of breaking free on most any play.
Brandon Alexander's older brother Nick -- a senior fullback -- rushed for 89 yards on eight carries, giving the Longhorns a backfield brother duo, with a stellar 1-2 punch.
Junior running back Nick Goodman also shined, scoring the Horns fourth and final touchdown.
For the evening, Goodman finished with 29 yards on five carries.
Through the airways, Halenar completed six of nine passes for 85 yards and a TD.
Most importantly, the junior signal caller appeared poised and confident pulling the trigger on the newly installed power option offense.
As important as the passing and running was to the victory, it was the domination at the line of scrimmage by the offensive line that was a Longhorn highlight.
Anderson lauds team
Although the Longhorns struggled in the final going, Anderson was content with the overall effort.
"I was very pleased with how we stuck together at the end of the game when momentum was clearly not in our hands," he said.
"We had a goal line stand, then a key offensive series, a huge pass deflection for a two-point play and then recovered an onside kick to seal the game."
Throughout the final going, Anderson remained convinced the team was on the road to victory.
"I never felt like we were giving up or backing down and I knew we were going to come away with the win," he said.
Even though the game went down as a Longhorn "W", the coach promises the team has learned from the adversity.
"We had a big wake up call in the second half to learn from," he said. "We will always have things to work on to get better."
The Horns (1-0) return to action Aug. 31 in Winslow against the home standing Bulldogs of the 3A North region. Kick off is 7 p.m.