FLAGSTAFF — Like a heavyweight fighter who courageously picks himself off the mat and rallies to win the boxing title, the Longhorns erased a 20-0 first-half deficit to edge Blue Ridge 34-33 in double overtime for the 3A state championship.
The dramatic second-half turnaround took place Nov. 29 in Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
In the first half, the Payson defense was rocked on its heels by Blue Ridge quarterback Dustin Simmons who threw a 44-yard TD pass to Nathan Schimmel and by a 59-yard TD run by Griffin Strum.
But in the nail-biting third and fourth quarters, defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes’ bandits shutout the Yellow Jackets — holding them to five consecutive three-and-outs.
With the defense rock solid, the offense put together scoring drives of 59, 52 and 59 yards to tie the game.
In the first overtime, both teams scored touchdowns and converted extra points points to deadlock the clash at 27-27.
In the second OT, junior kicker Josh Frewin booted the winning extra point only minutes after his Yellow Jacket counterpart had missed a conversion kick.
Frewin’s game-winning kick sent the huge Payson contingent at the Walkup Skydome into a frenzy of celebration.
On the field, players hugged one another, cheerleaders cried and coaches jumped for joy.
The last time Payson “partied like it was 1999” — to quote Prince — it was actually 1998 and the Horns had beaten Blue Ridge for the 3A state title. That win ended the Yellow Jackets’ 63-game playoff winning streak.
Following that 1998 title, it took the Longhorns 10 years to win another football crown, the third in school history, but for fans, players and coaches on Saturday evening, the victory was well worth the wait.
Most amazing about the triumph is that the Longhorn players returned to the NAU field after halftime oozing with confidence and with a swagger despite trailing by three touchdowns.
During pre-third-quarter kickoff warmups, not a single player hung his head. Rather they shouted encouragement to one another, pounded their chests, buckled down their chinstraps and went on to play with the guts and glory of true champions.
Matt Wilson, a 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound two-way lineman, knows the reason for the optimism on the Longhorn sidelines.
“We were done being embarrassed,” he said. “We knew we could win if we just played up to our ability.”
Wilson, playing defensive end, fought double teams all evening long, but was among those who helped the Longhorns control the line of scrimmage during the rousing second-half comeback.
Senior quarterback Ridge Halenar, who ran for two touchdowns and passed for another, led the incredible comeback. That performance was a total turnaround from the first half when the Payson signal caller was sacked five times and intercepted twice.
“The first half I wasn’t very good fundamentally. I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” Halenar said. “But we got things turned around because we knew we weren’t going to go out like that.”
The game-winning rally actually began on the first play after halftime when Wilson tackled Griffin Sturm for a 2-yard loss. On the next play, linebacker Tyler Savage sacked Simmons for a 4-yard loss.
“It all started with that stop,” Halenar said.
Following a Blue Ridge punt, the Horns executed a seven-play drive that culminated with tight end Jeff Day — running a crossing pattern — hauling in a Halenar pass in the end zone.
Trailing 20-13 late in the game, Payson put together a game-tying 59-yard scoring drive highlighted by Savage’s acrobatic catch along the sideline. It gave the Horns the ball on Blue Ridge’s 13-yard line with 2:33 remaining.
Then, on a third-and-goal from the five, Halenar sprinted out and passed to junior tailback Brandon Alexander in the end zone.
The TD pulled Payson to within 20-19.
With 49 seconds remaining, the Longhorns tried to draw BR off sides with a long count on what appeared to be a two-point conversion try.
But the Yellow Jackets didn’t bite, forcing a Payson timeout.
Coach Josh Anderson then sent out Frewin who toed the game-tying extra point.
In the first OT, Simmons — scrambling from pressure — hooked up with Nathan Schimmel in the end zone for a go-ahead TD. On the play, the Payson defensive back fell down setting Schimmel free.
Payson roared back scoring on Halenar’s 1-yard run and Frewin’s kick to force a second OT.
After Schimmel banged to pay dirt from the 2-yard line, the Jacket’s extra point try sailed left of the goalpost setting up Payson’s dramatic win.
“We knew we were going to win, but we had no idea it was going to go like that,” Halenar said.
With the win, Payson finishes the year 14-0 and East Region and state champions.
Blue Ridge finished 12-2, with its only two losses to Payson.