Pursuit Of State Title Started

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Pursuit of Payson High School's third state championship kicked off yesterday morning on Longhorn field with two-a-day practice sessions.

"The kids practiced hard, we (the coaches) were very happy," second-year coach Josh Anderson said.

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Bryan Burke does a little extra strength and conditioning work following Monday morning's season opening football practice session.

Among the most eager veterans were Matt Wilson, Bryan Burke, Tyler Savage and Ridge Halenar, who stayed after the morning practice to engage in some extra conditioning.

"We're the overachievers," Wilson said, half-teasing.

The opening session even drew some former Longhorn greats, including Greg Alexander -- the Horns starting fullback and linebacker on the 1986 team that advanced to the state tournament before losing 7-0 to Snowflake.

Gazing at the well-manicured field, Alexander remembered his playing days. "There's a lot of great memories out there, a lot of tradition," he said.

The Longhorns two-a-day practices will continue until Aug. 3.

With school set to begin Aug. 6, practice will then be held once each day at 3:30 p.m.

Part of the focus of preseason practices will be to improve conditioning and prepare for an Aug. 17 preseason scrimmage against Camp Verde that will begin 7 p.m. in Longhorn stadium.

The scrimmage is usually a much welcomed gridiron respite for both coaches and players.

The staff uses the scrimmage to evaluate players and fine-tune the offense and defense before the season kicks off in earnest Aug. 24 against Fountain Hills.

The players look forward to the scrimmage because it allows them the opportunity to finally hit someone other than their own teammates.

"That gets pretty old," one player said at the conclusion of Monday's practice.

For defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes, the scrimmage will also be an opportunity to plug his players into the positions where they can best help the team.

Hayes' defenses will remain much the same as they were last season, with both odd and even front looks and a combination of zone defenses in the backfield.

"We'll play some man-to-man if we have the athletes to do it," he said.

On offense, Anderson has scrapped the version of the wing-T he used last year in favor of the power option.

With the change, the players' responsibility will be to quickly learn the new "O" before the campaign tips off.

If the Longhorns showed strength on opening day -- the team hasn't had many previous seasons -- it was the size and strength of the offensive and defensive line.

Kevin Conner, Scott Andrus, Burke and Wilson give the Horns a foursome of 200-plus pound players capable of dominating the line of scrimmage.

In several "Big Man" competitions held during summer passing league action, the Horn lineman proved to be the equal of most all opponents, including some from 4A and 5A schools.

At a Northern Arizona University-sponsored tournament in June, Conner and Andrus were fourth in a field that included linemen from 10 schools.

In the squat competition, Conner completed 25 reps with 225 pounds. Andrus bench-pressed 185 pounds, 22 times.

The lineman, coupled with returning all-region honorees B.J. Hill, David Carlen and Halenar give the Horns the foundation on which to build a solid offense and defense.

Of course, there are always voids to fill and the staff must find replacements for Miles Huff and Zack Miller, who graduated last spring.

In 2006, both were All-East first team selections and Miller was an Arizona Coaches Association North All-Star team member.

But Anderson should have plenty of candidates to fill in for the departed twosome.

The junior class is filled with standout athletes that have been on the Longhorns radar as can't-miss prospects since they entered PHS.

If there is a setback the Horns must overcome, it is the loss of Chase Sevey, who injured his shoulder during passing league play and could be lost for the season.

But even his loss hasn't dampened Anderson's enthusiasm, for he predicts the team will be much improved over the 4-6 squad of last season.

"I think we are all excited about this year," he said.

"We have a lot to prove."

If the Horns can attain their goal of a state title, it will be the third championship in the 43-year history of the sport at the school.

The others were won in 1981 and 1998.

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