Josh Anderson’s winding road to coach of the year honors was pitted with enough bumps, hurdles and Catch 22s to rattle even the Good Humor Man.
Nonetheless, the third-year Payson High School football coach’s performance during the past state championship campaign impressed 3A East coaches enough to have them unanimously select him the region’s Coach of the Year.
Probably the greatest stumbling block Anderson had to overcome at PHS occurred during his first year at the helm of the program.
In the fall of 2006, he suspended five members of the football team for the entire season — four of whom were starters — after they were caught drinking at an impromptu Saturday night party in the Tonto National Forest.
The suspension of the players sharply divided the community, leaving some questioning the harshness of the discipline and others wholeheartedly backing the coach.
PHS Principal Roy Sandoval was among those who supported the coach’s decision.
“I think he’s great for kids,” said Sandoval at the time.
Anderson remained committed to the discipline, but recognized the suspended players were caught up in an ugly situation.
“They are good kids making the wrong choice,” he said.
He also admitted, “We are hurting badly, it has to be a learning process.”
Some of those suspended, who were sophomores at the time, returned to the team this year as senior leaders. Most are now all-region, all-state honorees and could be playing in the upcoming all-star game.
One of those sophomores booted in 2006, an All-East selection the year prior, transferred to Blue Ridge where he immediately became a starter for the Yellow Jackets.
PHS senior Cody Sexton remembers the turmoil well.
“There were many kids kicked off the team that year, including myself, and we lost one of the strongest players without knowing Coach Anderson could pull the team together and make us one again,” he said. “This is where I gained my respect for Coach Anderson.”
Also on the journey to Coach of the Year Year laurels, Anderson had to deal with some unpleasantness that occurred at Chino Valley, the school he coached just prior to moving to Payson.
Apparently some there felt he had abandoned the team in favor of the Longhorns.
Anderson openly admitted the coach who replaced him, as well as some others in the town, were bad-mouthing his move to Payson.
When the Longhorns showed up in Chino Valley for a game two years ago, students donned inscribed T-shirts that slammed Anderson.
Of course all the distractions only set the stage for what is now history — the Horns finished the 2008 season 14-0 and won both the East Region and 3A state championship.
Along the path to the crown, the Horns turned in one of the most impressive seasons in 3A prep football history.
No Payson alum, except the 2008 team can boast of beating the dreaded Snowflake Lobos twice in the same season. Most impressively, the wins were by lopsided scores of 52-15 and 36-19.
During the course of the regular season, the Horns also beat defending state champion Show Low 32-21 and clubbed Bradshaw Mountain, a team that qualified for the 4A state tournament, by a 55-21 margin.
It was indeed a season to remember.
But in 2006, the year was anything but an overwhelming success as the team finished 4-6 overall, 2-4 in the East and was denied a berth in the state tournament due to a fifth-place region finish.
The final game of the season, a 24-21 loss to Show Low, almost fittingly capped what was a frustrating campaign. With 1:50 remaining in the game — after the Horns had rallied late for 15 points — Payson’s field goal kicker misfired on an attempt that would have tied up the game and sent it into overtime.
At the conclusion of that season, Anderson remained upbeat predicting a bright future.
“Good things are going to continue to happen; these kids learned more about life in one short football season than many do throughout their entire high school experience,” he said.
Just as Anderson anticipated, the Horns improved the following season to 8-4 and advanced to the state semifinals before losing 16-14 to the Coolidge Bears.
That season provided a hint of good things to come.
In 2008, the team’s state championship run climaxed Nov. 29 at Northern Arizona University with a dramatic 34-33 double-overtime victory over Blue Ridge.
The victory also helped Anderson win his first region Coach of the Year award as well as The Arizona Republic’s Small School Coach of the Year honor. He also has been selected head coach of the 2A/3A North team in this summer’s Arizona Coaches Association All-Star game.
“We are very blessed and I will only accept the awards on behalf of everybody that has a hand in our football program,” Anderson said.
“Winning such honors is just a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the athletes and the coaching staff.”
For Anderson, the coaches and the players, the season culminated Dec. 14 with an awards banquet held at the Mazatzal Casino.
“The (Tonto Apache) Tribe and their gaming enterprise covered all the costs and the parents and FAN (Friends And Neighbors) Club set up for the banquet,” Anderson said. “It was seriously incredible.”