At Florence High School, where the student enrollment is growing in record numbers, coach Shawn Cluff and his Gopher football players are finding gridiron life in the 3A conference to be a tough row to hoe.
The Gophers (0-2) stumbled in the early season, losing their opener 34-19 to Wickenburg and last week 34-20 to Estrella Foothills.
Last spring the Arizona Interscholastic Association realigned FHS to the 3A conference South region from 2A where it had resided for most of the school's history.
Florence was moved up a classification because its student count of 1,150 far exceeded the 2A cutoff of 450 students.
Florence is now the second largest school in the 3A ranks trailing only Chinle in the number of students.
When the school moved to 3A, the Gophers were expected to be competitive mostly because Cluff had 17 lettermen returning, including 12 of whom were starters.
Among those the coach and fans expected to shine were quarterback Cash Clemans (5-foot, 10-inches, 155 pounds), tailback Larry Anderson (5-foot, 9-inches, 170-pounds) and receiver/defensive back Andy Martinez (5-foot, 9 inches, 165-pounds).
Scouting reports indicate Florence runs spread formations sometimes with "trips" or a three-receiver side and other times with doubles on twin receivers and a tight end on one side.
In those formations, Clemans pulls the trigger on options, sweeps and quarterback leads.
The Gopher signal caller will also air it out when asked to but has thrown two interceptions this season.
"The ball is in his (Clemans) hands most of the time," PHS defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes said.
After losing to two teams from the South and West regions, Florence might now feel they are jumping from the proverbial "frying pan into the fire" having to take on East region member Payson (2-0).
The apprehension Florence feels is because the Gophers are taking on a Longhorn team that is aligned in the state's most rugged football region. East teams are 12-0 this season and have outscored opponents 219-45 the first week and 454-68 the second week.
Traveling to a region where one of the Beasts of the East is caved has to be an intimidating journey for the winless Gophers.
Payson will counter the Gopher attack, which is fueled by the running and throwing of Clemens and the rushing of Anderson, with an even-front defense that last week stymied the Winslow Bulldogs.
In the Horns 21-3 win over the homestanding Dogs, mike linebacker David Carlen, a 5-foot, 11-inch 190-pound junior, was a one-man wrecking crew, racking up 19 tackles for 25 yards in losses.
With that showing, Carlen now leads the East region in tackles (31) and quarterback sacks (4).
When Carlen is not hauling down opposing ball carriers, fellow linebacker Tyler Savage (6-foot, 3-inches, 180 pounds) can usually be found around the pile.
With 22 tackles, Savage is third ranked in the region, behind Carlen and Round Valley star Travis Trickey, who has 26 take downs.
Defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes's bandits also feature several other players capable of frustrating the Gophers.
They include linemen Scott Andrus, Bryan Burke and Matt Wilson as well as willie, or weak side backer, Troy Brown. Against Winslow, Brown had six tackles and one sack for a 5-yard loss.
Offensively, Payson will counter the gophers with a ground-oriented power option attack that racked up a whopping 481 yards rushing against Winslow.
Senior fullback Nick Alexander (5-foot, 8-inch, 195-pounds) led the team on the ground with 227 yards on 19 carries.
Alexander is now the East region's leading ball carrier with 316 yards in two games.
At tailback, sophomore Brandon Alexander -- Nick's younger brother -- had seven carries for 55 yards against Winslow, but left midway through the game with a knee injury.
Brandon's father, Greg, a former star Longhorn running back, said the injury was a bruised knee and his son was X-rayed and being treated by a doctor.
PHS coach Josh Anderson said early this week that Nick Alexander's status against Florence was uncertain, "we might have to rest him a week or two."
If Brandon Alexander is not available, the Horns have a stable of other running backs, including Nick Goodman, B.J. Hill, Zach Brooks and Shane Keith.
Set to engineer the Horn "O" is junior quarterback Ridge Halenar, a 5-foot, 9-inch 178-pound junior who was all-region last season.
Halenar has shown well running the option keeper, he picked up 100 yards on four carries against Winslow, but was not been able to hook up with his receivers, finishing 0-for-6 through the airways with one interception.
A week earlier in a season opening win over Fountain Hills, Halenar was 6-for-9 for 85 yards and a TD.
The Horn coaching staff is fine-tuning the passing game, which would give the Horns a more balanced attack against Florence and other foes down the schedule road.
Game time this evening is 7 p.m.