If Payson's 29-6 victory over homestanding Chino Valley was televised, it might have been called "The Ridge Halenar Show."
The title would have been appropriate because the 5-foot, 9-inch, 178-pound quarterback was the starring member of the Longhorn cast.
Through the airways, Halenar was workmanlike efficient, completing six of eight passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, he rushed for 65 yards on seven carries, including a nifty 19-yard break away.
But as good as he was on offense, it was his defensive efforts that was the real difference maker in the game.
Playing strong safety most of the game, although he is a free safety, Halenar intercepted three Chino Valley passes to continually stymie Cougar signal caller Cole Wisenhunt's efforts to hook up with speedy wide receiver Josh Clelland.
Halenar was in position most of the night to pilfer the errant aerials party because defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes instructed him to always line up on the same side of the field as Clelland.
"We knew, he (Wisenhunt) would be looking for number 80 (Clelland)," Hayes said.
The strategy allowed Halenar to be nearby each time the Cougar QB tried to muscle a throw to his favorite receiver.
Clelland, who entered the game with 249 yards receiving and boasting of a speedy 4.5 40-yard, clocking, was held to three catches for a miniscule 14 yards.
As good as Halenar was on both sides of the ball, the victory was by no means a one-man show.
Tight end Troy Brown scored two touchdowns -- one on a pass reception from Halenar and the other on a 60-yard interception return.
That interception, which came with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, upped Payson's lead to 22-7 and drove the final nail in the Chino coffin.
Defensively, Brown had six unassisted and two assisted tackles while playing the "willie" or weakside linebacker slot.
David Carlen, normally a defensive star at middle linebacker, jumped into the scoring acting by hauling in a 22-yard strike from Halenar, with 2:13 remaining in the game.
The pass and catch capped a determined 7-play 78-yard drive.
Nick Alexander also turned in a commendable performance after returning to the lineup from a one-week absence, due to a knee injury. The sophomore tailback rushed for 73 yards on 11 carries and scored one touchdown.
Also at tailback, Nick Goodman was the Horns leading ball carrier, with 96 yards on seven carries. One of his runs was for a team high 43 yards.
Defensively, end Bryan Burke chalked up two sacks that accounted for 51 yards in losses.
Burke also recorded 10 tackles, which was second only to Carlen, who finished with 15.
Tyler Savage shined with six assisted tackles, three unassisted and one fumble recovery.
The road to improvement
If there was a shortcoming Longhorn coach Josh Anderson and his staff want to shore up, it's the team's propensity to give up scores on the final play of the first half and the number of penalties incurred.
Against Chino Valley, the Horns were leading 8-0, with just four seconds remaining in the first half only to have the Cougars score on a well-executed screen pass that covered 63-yards.
The TD closed Payson's halftime lead to 8-6.
A week earlier in a win over Florence, Payson allowed the Gophers to score on the last play of the first half.
"We had a lapse in concentration both times," Anderson said. "I've got something in mind to help us finish the half a lot better."
The coach will also spend time this practice week trying to eliminate the number of flags thrown against his team.
"We had 13 penalties to their three," he said. "That is something we're going to have to clean up before we get to the East region games."
Following the win, which upped the Horns record to 4-0, Anderson lauded Schaffer Keith for filling in for Zach Burba, who is sidelined with a broken fibula.
"It was a tough week to be thrown into the mix against a good team and in a hostile environment," the coach said. "He responded with some great play."
Anderson also expressed his relief that the highly emotional game ended with a Longhorn "W."
For the game, Anderson returned to the school where he was head coach before leaving for Payson and was taking on many of the players he coached in their younger years.
"I'm very glad that week is over with, because it was a tense week for me," he said. "I tried like crazy not to let my emotions show or spill over to the kids and get them all wound up."
Apparently, Chino fans were not willing to forgive Anderson for departing the Cougar den.
Some donned T-shirts inscribed with "Anderson who?"
The coach shunned off the digs, saying, "The best thing we can do as coaches is get the kids lined up and then let them play the way they are capable."
Next up for the Longhorns is a Sept. 21 clash on PHS field against the Class 4A Bradshaw Mountain Bears. The Bears (2-2) are coming off a 17-16 double overtime win over Prescott.