Longhorns Face Challenge Against Top-Ranked Blue Ridge

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Payson High School football players are tonight facing a challenge of power, passion and glory they might never again have the opportunity to enjoy.

It involves a group of teenagers coming together in one courageous effort, with a goal of emerging victorious in a game almost no one in the state believes they have a chance to win.

In coach's jargon, "It's why we play the game."

The game, which will pit the Longhorns against Blue Ridge, is a rare opportunity for Payson athletes to overcome almost insurmountable odds, cheat the naysayers and harvest a wealth of memories that will last a lifetime.

The confrontation is also a test of fortitude that brought out the best in American heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, John F. Kennedy, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman and Vince Lombardi.

Although some will view tonight's football showdown against unbeaten, top-ranked and tradition-rich BR as only a game, it'll serve as a glimpse into the character, determination, perseverance, loyalty and selflessness of each player.

Prior to a huge game like tonight's battle in Lakeside, some coaches would point out to the players that they are fortunate young men to be able to participate in such a spirited match.

One former Arizona high school coach often told his players before a big game that there were thousands of teenagers who wanted desperately to play football but couldn't because they are ill, had been stricken by a life-threatening disease, didn't have their parents' support or simply weren't blessed with the God-given talent to play such a demanding sport.

"You are the lucky ones, the fortunate ones," he would say. "Be proud, be humble and be strong."

Those are the intangibles it will take for the Longhorns to slow a Yellow Jacket juggernaut (6-0 overall, 2-0 in the East) that has marched through the regular season, outscoring its opponents by an almost unbelievable 288-23 margin.

The Blue Ridge mystique is so daunting that there are those in 3A prep football circles willing to turn over the state championship trophy to coach Paul Moro without another game being played.

The MaxPreps worldwide Web site predicts Blue Ridge will beat Payson 31-13. A comparable score would seem to validate that prediction.

Payson lost to Show Low 14-7, but the Yellow Jackets ran roughshod over the Cougars 28-0.

Through the airways, BR quarterback Bryan Williams -- son of Jacket defensive coordinator Gary Williams -- is averaging 184.2 yards per game. Payson quarterback, Ridge Halenar is throwing at an 85 yards per-game clip in a ground-oriented offense.

Payson appears to have an edge in rushing with Nick Alexander averaging 101.3 yards. Jose Rosales leads BR with 92.8 yards per game.

Defensively, Payson middle linebacker David Carlen leads the team with 14 tackles per game. Former Longhorn standout Steel Armstrong, who transferred from PHS to BRHS two years ago, leads Jacket defenders, with 11.3 takedowns per game.

The Jackets have shut out their past three opponents while the Longhorns, after starting 5-0, have lost their past two games.

The Horns, however, have turned in one of their best weeks of practice and coaches predict the teams appears ready to play.

"They haven't needed a lot of motivation," defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes said.

If there is certainty about tonight's game, it's that former PHS football players and coaches will have lumps in their throats and adrenaline flowing when they hear chin straps buckle and the band strikes up the national anthem.

The future

A win over BR, coupled with a victory Oct. 19 against Alchesay, could catapult the Horns into the top three regular season finish and an automatic berth to state.

A loss, however, could mean a regular season fifth-place finish and hopes for the playoffs resting with the new power point system.

If Payson can attain a goal of a berth in the state tournament, whether it is with an automatic seed or by power points, play would begin Nov. 2 at the home of the highest seed. Play continues with quarterfinals on Nov. 9 and the Nov. 16 semifinals. The state championship will be played Nov. 23.

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