A gut-wrenching 26-23 loss to the Round Valley Elks has put a huge dent in the Longhorns hopes to finish among the East region's top three and earn an advantageous playoff slot.
With the defeat, Oct. 30 at RVHS High School in Eagar, the Horns (5-2 and 0-2 in the East) remain winless in the region, with just three regular season games remaining.
Rendering the situation even bleaker is that pair of the clashes on the schedule are against probably the state's most powerful 3A teams. Payson travels to unbeaten and state top-ranked Blue Ridge Oct. 12 and hosts unbeaten and second-ranked Snowflake Oct. 26.
Sandwiched between those two East skirmishes is an Oct. 19 visit to Whiteriver to take on Alchesay. The Falcons are 0-2 in the East title chase and 3-4 overall.
If Payson can't muster the offense and defense to upset either Blue Ridge or Snowflake, the best hopes for the Horns is to earn a playoff seed through the new power points system.
In it, Payson is currently ranked sixth among the 28 3A teams in the state, with 47.05 points.
Ranked ahead of the Longhorns are Blue Ridge (55.17), Snowflake (55.15), Wickenburg (53.89), Round Valley (48.44) and Show Low (48.44).
All except Wickenburg are East region schools, along with Payson.
In losing to pass-happy Round Valley, the Horns fell behind 23-0 in the second quarter before a TD with 2:08 remaining ended the Horns scoreless streak.
After an offside on RV, the Horns were successful on a two-point conversion attempt to close the Elk lead to 23-8 at halftime.
About two minutes into the second half, quarterback Ridge Halenar scored on an option keeper to pull PHS with 23-15.
Late in the third, RV's Colton Mortensen toed a field goal that eventually proved to be the winning points.
The Horns closed the final score to three points on a TD and two-point conversion midway through the fourth quarter.
With about four minutes remaining and in possession of three timeouts, the Horns punted, hoping the defense would hold RV on downs and PHS would get the ball back in good field position.
"But we were unable to stop them and unfortunately, we were on defense at the end of the game," coach Josh Anderson said.
"The ‘D' held them to only three points and the offense put up 15 (in the second half), to give us the opportunity to finish the game successfully."
A rally, however, was not to be, as the Longhorns and their fans could only stand and watch as the Elks ran out the game clock.
"We played like a Folger's cup of coffee -- ‘good to the last drop'," Anderson said. "It was another tough loss, but at least we played with a lot more energy this week, compared to last (when the Horns lost 14-7 to Show Low).
"I was pleased with the energy, but when we got momentum in the first half, we seemed to give it right back to the Elks."
In accessing the Payson effort, it was the special teams who must shoulder part of the blame for the Horns slow start.
"They must have seemed like a total debacle to the fans, but in actuality, it was only two mistakes -- very costly mistakes that gave up nine points," Anderson said. "Otherwise, our special teams, as a whole, did an outstanding job."
The coach also lauded defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes' bandits, who kept the Elks in check most of the evening.
"RV had only three drives on our defense, and two of three were for TDs and the other ran out the clock at the end," Anderson said.
"Basically, it was just a matter of whoever had the ball last was going to win."
Round Valley pulled off a mild surprise against the Horn "D," rushing 34 times for 140 yards, after spending most of the early season throwing the ball.
Many of those rush attempts were at the end of the game, when the Elks were trying to retain possession of the ball and run out the clock.
The Elks, however, didn't totally abandon their vaunted aerial game, as strong-armed quarterback Hayden Eagar completed 20 of 37 pass attempts for 251 yards and three TDs.
The Horns did pilfer two errant enemy aerials --ne each by B.J. Hill and Bryan Burke.
"Mike," or middle linebacker David Carlen, led the Horns defensive charge with a team leading 11 tackles -- six of which were unassisted.
Tyler Savage and Matt Wilson each had sacks of Eagar.
Although the Horns struggled in the losses to Show Low and Round Valley, Anderson remains optimistic.
"We have lost two in a row, which stinks, but we are not losing to pushover teams and we are not getting blown out of the water with the scores," he said. "Mistakes happen, but we don't quit or give up just because things aren't going our way.
"That's what I appreciate about our team character the most."