As tough as the Payson Longhorns season ending 16-14 loss to the Coolidge Bears Friday evening was to absorb, the future is bright for the PHS gridders.
The optimism is fueled mostly by the presence of 15 juniors who return next season with an additional year of playing experience and maturity.
Among the juniors who will shoulder leadership responsibilities next year are Ridge Halenar, David Carlen, Nick Goodman, Matt Wilson, Tyler Savage and others.
Add to the mix several talented underclassmen who picked up valuable playing experience the past season, and the Horns have a solid foundation upon which to build the 2008 team.
In particular, running backs Brandon Alexander and Cliff Lopez, as well as kicker Josh Frewin, could be vital cogs in the Longhorns arsenal. All three are sophomores.
Payson Herring, a 5-foot, 130-pound tailback, and quarterback/linebacker Westin Gibson could also contribute to the varsity cause. Both are freshmen.
In the Horns Nov. 2 state tournament opening round 58-26 win over Parker, the speedy Herring scored two touchdowns -- one on a sterling 93-yard kick-off return. Gibson also played well late in the game as a reserve.
As with the end of any season, there will be several seniors lost to graduation, including the team's leading rusher Nick Alexander.
Coach Josh Anderson will also have to fill the cleats of graduating tight end Troy Brown, two-way lineman Scott Andrus, punter Nick Herring and running back B.J. Hill. It was Hill who saved the best effort of his career for his final prep game.
In the loss to Coolidge, Hill rushed for 164 yards on 15 carries that included a twisting, darting 51-yard scamper in the second quarter.
Defensively, Hill finished with five tackles, four of which were unassisted.
Although the Longhorns lost, Hill's final game was a fitting tribute to the senior who was forced into playing quarterback as an untested sophomore.
During that season and the following year as a junior, the 5-foot-10 inch 148-pounder took a severe pounding from opposing defenses, but usually managed to answer the Longhorn cause.
Following the loss, Anderson lauded the seniors, "as a great class who set the standards very high for our younger athletes."
Anderson and his staff has also emphasized that for the returning Horns to be successful, the freshmen, sophomores and juniors must continue to improve their individual skills in off-season weight training, passing leagues and skill sessions.
The best hope the teenagers might might have of attaining their goal of a state championship, is to strictly follow the old coaching adage that games are not won on Friday nights, but rather in the off-season.
"We'll continue to work hard to reach our goals and make the entire Longhorn football nation proud," Anderson said.
The agony of defeat
In the loss to the Coolidge Bears, Nov. 9 at newly built Chandler Perry High School, the two teams battled to a 14-14 tie until 7:43 remaining in the game, when long snapper Bryan Burke's snap sailed over punter Nick Herring's outstretched arms into the end zone.
The resulting two-point safety eventually proved to be the winning points in the state quarterfinal game. Although Payson fell behind 16-14 on the snapping miscue, the Horns had a final last gasp shot at rallying for the winning points.
It came after holding Coolidge on three plays and forcing a punt. After fielding the punt, the Horns went on a 9-play 67-yard drive that at first appeared end zone bound. But with 1:30 remaining, Bear defensive back Kevin Mitchell intercepted an underthrown Halenar pass intended for Savage.
Much to the chagrin of the 200-plus fans who made the trip to the Valley, Coolidge was able to run out the play clock and preserve the victory.
The loss, however, was not due to Coolidge's on-the-field superiority, but rather to the Horns' inexperience.
"Coolidge just seemed to wait for us to make a mistake, knowing they couldn't out-physical us," Anderson said. "We were the least experienced playoff team of the eight in the quarter finals."
The coach also called the Horns' punting team faux pas "all mental and not physical."
The winning slipper might have been on the Longhorn hooves, had the team been able to make good on a field goal attempt with 10 seconds remaining in the first half. Frewin's kick however, was wide and the two teams went into the locker room dead knotted at 14-14.
In the gut-wrenching loss, the Longhorns lit up the scoreboard on their first possession, after driving 84 yards in 13 plays. Brandon Alexander scored the TD on a 7-yard run over the left side of the line. Frewin's conversion kick gave the Horns a 7-0 lead
Coolidge came roaring back on their offensive possession to score the game-tying touchdown on Jeremy White's 6-yard scamper. The run capped a 14-play, 67-yard drive.
Bear fullback Brad Jackson's 18-yard burst through the middle of the PHS defense, midway through the second quarter, gave Coolidge its first lead of the game, 14-7.
Jackson entered the game as the most heralded runner in the Bears' talented stable of backs, but was held to 56 yards on 14 carries.
Payson (8-4) scored its second TD of the game with 5:09 remaining in the second quarter on fullback Nick Alexander's 3-yard run. The score capped a 12-play 80-yard drive.
East on a roll
Payson's loss was the only state tournament defeat suffered by an East region qualifier.
Regular season champion, undefeated and state top-ranked Blue Ridge advanced to the final four with a 43-12 win over River Valley of the West region. Show Low, the East region regular season runner-up, dismantled North champion Winslow 26-0. East No. 7 seed Round Valley used its vaunted passing attack to upset West region champion, No. 2 seeded and previously undefeated Wickenburg, 21-14.
In the final four Nov. 16 at Mesa College, Coolidge will play Round Valley at 5 p.m. and Show Low and Blue Ridge clash at 8 p.m.
The winners will meet for the state championship Nov. 24 at the University of Arizona Stadium in Tucson.