The always-bustling Rim Country sports scene was highlighted in 2008 by two gridiron blockbusters — one great and the other not so great.
The enormous feat that had fans and boosters shouting the praises of the Longhorn football program centered on the greatest comeback in Arizona prep sports history.
Down 20-0 at halftime of the 3A state championship game, the Longhorns rallied to beat Blue Ridge 34-33 in two pulsating overtimes.
The sports story many hoped they’d never be forced to read first occurred in mid-August with the emotional death of Camp Tontozona as the Arizona State University pre-season football training site.
While those two stories dominated the sports pages, there were plenty of others that attracted great interest, including town budget cuts that impacted recreation programs, the PHS basketball team’s second successive state runner-up finish, the retirement after 50 years of former Justice of the Peace Ronnie McDaniel’s basketball jersey number, Gary Barcom’s introduction into the Az Outdoors Hall of Fame and others.
No. 1 “Champions”
The Longhorns’ state championship win, only the third in school football history, was etched into the history books Nov. 29 on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
There, an estimated 4,000 Longhorn fans filled one side of Walkup Skydome to cheer the undefeated and East region champions on.
Expecting to see a close, hard-fought game much like the Horns’ 13-7 regular season win over Blue Ridge, fans’ hopes were dashed while watching the Longhorns dig themselves into a three-touchdown halftime hole.
Although coach Josh Anderson contends he didn’t do anything special at halftime to right the Longhorns’ sinking ship, the players returned to the field with a vengeance.
The comeback began with defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes’ bandits shutting out the Yellow Jackets over the course of the final two quarters. In fact, the “D” dominated, holding BR to five consecutive three-and-outs.
With the defense as fundamentally sound as the Obama presidential campaign, 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 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 boot turned Walkup Skydome into a carnival of celebration.
Matt Wilson, a 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound two-way lineman who has since the game been named an All-Arizona first team player, knows the reason for the optimism on the Longhorn sidelines after halftime.
“We were done being embarrassed,” he said. “We knew we could win if we just played up to our ability.”
Senior quarterback Ridge Halenar said there never was much doubt the Horns were going to rally back into contention — “We knew we weren’t going to go out like that.”
No. 2 “Mountain scrimmage last for ASU?”
While Payson’s state title was a cause for celebration in the Rim Country, the closing of Tontozona was a blow to those who considered the scenic high mountain retreat a sacred place for ASU Sun Devil football.
On Aug. 16, at the only scrimmage held this summer at the camp, many in attendance predicted the abandonment of Tontozona in favor of the school’s new $8.4 million air-conditioned indoor practice facility in Tempe would mean the demise of the once proud Devils.
“Every time a coach has left Tontozona early, whether it be Larry Marmie, Bruce Snyder, Dirk Koetter or whoever, the team went on to have a terrible season,” said ASU fan Bill Combs.
Just as he predicted, the Devils stumbled through a horrible year, losing to lowly UNLV and to Arizona for the first time in three seasons. ASU also failed to win a bowl bid, finishing 5-7.
Just months after the single Tontozona scrimmage wrapped up, ASU officials announced the training site was up for sale. That created a fury of outrage among well-heeled boosters who remembered the grueling two-weeks long, two-and three-a-day sessions under former coach Frank Kush that helped lay the foundation for one of collegiate football’s finest programs.
After Kush first began using the camp as a training site in 1960, scribes and sports journalists have touted it as one of the most unique college football training sites in the country.
Bob Eger, who in 2001 authored “Maroon and Gold, a History of Sun Devil Athletics,” once said the camp, located east of Payson near Kohl’s Ranch, was one of his five favorite places in the world
Tontozona — complete with an expertly groomed football field — lies in a scenic basin surrounded by towering mountains. On the camp property, a bubbling spring forms a natural whirlpool. Tonto Creek is just a few minutes’ walk away and frequent sightings of wildlife are commonplace.
The outrage over selling pristine Tontozona reached a fever pitch a few weeks ago when Payson’s Regional Economic Development Executive Director publicly suggested it could be turned into a five-star resort or housing development.
Ironically the “air bubble” practice facility school administrations authorized collapsed in Sept. during a Tempe-area storm and was unavailable for use the entire season.
Some have suggested it was spirits of Kush and all those former players who trained at Tontozona that caused the mysterious collapse of the bubble.
No. 3 “Longhorns state bridesmaids again”
The Longhorns boys basketball team (24-7) built a 10-7 first-quarter lead in the state championship game only to have highly favored Estrella Foothills (31-2) roar back for a 64-51 victory.
The state runner-up finish, which occurred Feb. 22 at Jobbing.com Arena in Glendale, was the second successive second-place showing for the Longhorns.
In the state tournament, the Horns — who had earlier won the East region championship — whipped Holbrook, Chino Valley and previously unbeaten Safford.
Following that game, first-year head coach Kenny Hayes was named the East region Coach of the Year and a bevy of PHS players, including Shane Keith, Levi Neal, Robert Walker, Cody York and Matt Wilson, received post-season honors.
No. 4 “Payson High scoring mark untouched after 50 years”
On a mid-January night when Ronnie McDaniel’s jersey number (4) was being retired, the former Longhorn basketball star still sees his name high atop the school record board for most points scored in a single game.
In 1958, at Julia Randall School, McDaniel — then a senior — torched Paradise Valley High School for 48 points.
Even though many talented players have donned PHS uniforms in the years that followed McDaniel’s onslaught, the record remains in tact.
To go along with his name on the record board, the former law enforcement officer and Justice of the Peace now has a number-retirement banner hanging in Wilson Dome alongside the three football players whose numbers have been retired.
What renders the record even more impressive than its longevity is that it was set before the three-point line was added to high school basketball.
Had the 19-foot, 9-inch arc been in use then, McDaniel might have scored close to 60 points.
“There were some of my shots that were from that far out,” he said. “We’d run a lot, then pull up and shoot the jumpers.”
At 5 feet, 9 inches, McDaniel had to rely on his quickness, jumping ability and, often, the friendly confines of Julia Randall gym to excel.
“The gym was so small that people sitting on the sides often had their feet on the court,” he said. “Because of that, I was able to use the sidelines to dribble up court, usually left-handed, without worrying about the ball getting stolen.”
McDaniel also remembers that he often found himself driving the middle where opposing forwards and centers were both taller and heavier.
“I found out by going inside, those big guys could kill you,” he said. “So, I developed a hook shot and some bank shots.”
No. 5 “Town recreation programs continuing”
In late December, with rumors swirling that town adult and youth recreation programs would soon be nonexistent due to severe budget cuts, four recreation leaders stepped up to say “not true.”
Joseph Harris, Mary McMullen, Charlene Hunt and Deb Rose are vowing to continue almost the same slate of programs that were offered before the fiscal bloodletting.
What caused the outrage in the community was a budget plan adopted in November by the town council that resulted in a 37-percent cut to the recreation department.
Also, Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester and the department’s entire staff of seasonal and part-time workers were laid off.
The four remaining recreation leaders say they will be able to continue to offer solid programs with the help of a dedicated core of volunteers, some creative scheduling and what McMullen calls “cross training to help one another out.”
The plan is, Hunt said, “For every program, we will try to have at least one paid staff member present, maybe more, and then fill in with volunteers.”
That will be possible, she added, because “people have really stepped up and offered to come and help out.”
Among the recent boosts that have helped buoy the battered department is a $3,700 donation from the Friends of Parks and Recreation. The money is now being used to keep two youth basketball leagues and one adult league operating through March 2009.
Friends has also asked Harris, McMullen, Hunt and Rose to come up with a bare-bones budget that will keep programs intact until the end of the fiscal year.
The group hopes to generate the money in a soon-to-be-launched $50,000 fund-raising campaign.
No. 6 “Payson man inducted into Wall of Fame”
As unusual as it sounds, a Payson man is soon to be honored as one of Canada’s most fabled football players.
He’s 64-year-old Frank Andruski who will be inducted Aug. 1 during ceremonies in Calgary to the Stampeders Wall of Fame. The following day at halftime of the Stampeders’ game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in McMahon Stadium, he’ll be introduced to the public.
Andruski, who has lived in Payson for the past five years, will attend the ceremonies with his wife, Marilyn.
Also being inducted into the Wall of Fame are former Stampeders quarterback Doug Flutie and ex-offensive lineman Rocco Romano.
Since the founding of the Wall of Fame in 1985, only 25 players have been inducted.
Andruski, who wore No. 24 while playing defensive back for the Stampeders from 1966 to 1973, continues to hold several slots in the team’s record book.
His 30 interceptions rank him fourth in team history and his four interception returns for touchdowns tie him for second.
In 1973, his 204 yards gained after interceptions led the Canadian Football League and remains tops in Stampeder history.
Also, his 105-yard interception return for a TD in 1973 is the seventh longest return by a Calgary player.
In the 1970 Grey Cup game against Montreal, he had two interceptions and he’s listed in the CFL record books for blocking four kicks in his career.
In reflecting on his time in the Canadian pro ranks, he remembers it was his instincts rather than natural talent that helped him succeed.
“I think it was my knowledge of the game,” he said. “I never thought of myself as particularly fast, but I studied the game and knew it well.”
Most impressively about Andruski’s time in the CFL is that almost 35 years after his retirement, he remains one of the top six players in nine different categories at his position.
During Andruski’s eight seasons in the CFL, he was named to the Canadian All-Star football team in 1967 and 1968 and was a CFL Western Division All-Star six times. He also played on three teams that reached the Grey Cup, Canadian football’s equivalent of the Super Bowl.
In 1971, he led Calgary to the Grey Cup championship.
No. 7 “Lady Horns get taste of winning”
Breaking a 14-year drought, the Lady Longhorns volleyball team finally won a state tournament game by beating highly favored Fountain Hills 3-2.
The Lady Horns took an 11th seed to the tournament, played Nov. 7 at Bradshaw Mountain High School, after finishing third in the East regular season standings and third in the regional tournament.
Pitted against favored Fountain Hills, many expected the Lady Horns to say a quick goodbye as previous teams had done. But after losing the first game 25-17, the netters rose to the challenge. Payson took the second game 25-20 but decisively lost the third, 25-7.
Down, squirming and struggling, but not out, Payson tied up the match 2-2 with a 25-17 victory. In the fifth and deciding game, Payson survived a 15-13 thriller. With the stirring win, Payson advanced to the quarterfinals against North Region tournament champion Tuba City.
“Tuba City came in with great credentials, they had lost to only one team (Monument Valley) during the regular season and sported a strong 15-2 record,” Payson coach Arnold Stonebrink said.
The Lady Horns lost the opener 25-17, but won the second game 26-24 and the third 25-21. Tuba City took the fourth 25-17 to force a for-all-the-marbles fifth game showdown. In the finale, Payson power — which had been firing on all cylinders — finally ran down, 15-5.
Following the season, five Lady Horns received all-region honors.
Jenna Robertson, Cydney Figueroa and Laughlin Potvin were chosen, in a voting of coaches, to the All-East first team. Kristin Remonda and Rose Hardt received honor able mention.
Robertson, a senior middle hitter, is a three-sport star at Payson High School who has built a reputation as one of the finest athletes in the region.
In volleyball, her 982 spikes led the team, as did her .213 hitting efficiency, 358 kills and 57 blocks. She also served 70 aces and was one of the top three serve-receivers on the team.
Her finest moment during the season might have occurred in a 3-2 state tournament loss to powerful Tuba City.
Pitted at the net against North Region Player of the Year Dakota Yazzie, Robertson battled the Warrior star tooth and nail. In fact, Robertson finished the match with 22 kills and impressive hitting stats.
Figueroa, a senior setter, was the team’s quarterback and floor general.
In addition to running the offense and being an excellent passer, Figueroa finished with 182 digs, 834 kills and was the Lady Horns’ third best server.
In Payson’s state tournament opening-round win over Fountain Hills, Figueroa was at her best setting up teammates.
During one stretch, she dished out 11 assists.
No. 8 “Payson man named to AZ Outdoor Hall of Fame”
A Payson man, long known for his conservation efforts and civic contributions, has been inducted into the Arizona Outdoor Hall of Fame.
Gary Barcom was one of four inductees honored at the Wildlife for Tomorrow banquet held Aug. 16 at the Scottsdale Resort and Conference Center.
In addition to being added to the Outdoor Hall of Fame, Barcom received the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife’s Outstanding Citizen Wildlife Contributor Award July 14 in Rapid City, S.D.
Barcom, the former owner of a parts and equipment company in Payson, was cited during both ceremonies as a man “who has tirelessly served on numerous boards and committees for the betterment of youth and outdoor Arizona.”
He was lauded as the driving force behind the founding of the Mogollon Sporting Association and as a valuable member of the Heritage Public Advisory Committee that helps dole out Arizona Heritage Fund money.
In addition to Barcom’s contributions to the MSA and the Heritage Fund, he’s been active in Boy Scouts, Safari Club, Outstanding Young Farmer Program, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, and Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Arizona Jaycees and the Arizona Antelope Foundation.
He has also served as a liaison between the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The Payson man has also been at the forefront of a number of youth hunter recruitment and retention programs and is known to be an avid angler and hunter.
The others inducted into the hall of fame with Barcom were former Arizona Game and Fish Department director Duane Shroufe, businessman L.V. Yates and the Chandler Rod and Gun club.
No. 9 “Record-setting former player inducted”
Mary McMullen, a wife, mother of two and town recreation leader, was inducted May 17 into the Paradise, Calif. high school athletic hall of fame.
McMullen, a 1988 graduate of Paradise High, is the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,198 point in her three-year varsity career playing both forward and center for the Bobcats.
That mark is also a California Eastern Athletic League North Section record.
In addition to setting scoring marks, McMullen is the school and North Section record-holder in career rebounds with 876.
Upon receiving the award, McMullen, who is known in Paradise by her maiden name of Mary Prince, told onlookers that winning a sectional championship was the highlight of her basketball career.
“It was my senior year and we scored in the last minute to win by one point,” she said.
“It had been a long time since the school had won (a sectional title).”
In track and field, McMullen was equally successful as she was on the hardwood. She continues to hold the PHS high-jump record with a leap of 5-feet, 10 1/2 inches.
After starring in two sports for Paradise High, McMullen accepted a track and field scholarship to the University of Washington where she once finished second in the Pac-10 high jump.
She remained at Washington for two years before transferring to the University of California at Davis. There, she continued her high-jumping career for the Cal track team.
No. 10 “New wrestling coach full of enthusiasm”
Payson High has selected only the fourth wrestling coach in the 35-year history of the sport at the school.
Travis Kopenhafer will take over the reins of the program from Dave LaMotte who resigned at the conclusion of last season.
Although Kopenhafer does not have previous head coaching experience, he is well versed in the sport, having been an assistant the past two years at Arizona State University.
He also helped coach in the famous Sunkist Kids wrestling program in Tempe and competed for the team in the 157-pound class.
At Adams State College in Colorado he was a three-time All-American and a national champion.
Last year, he qualified for the Olympic Trials, but came up just short of making the team.
“It was an awesome experience, I only wish it would have turned out a little bit differently,” he said.
Although Kopenhafer preaches the values of getting involved in the sport early, his wrestling career didn’t begin until his junior year at tiny Mancos High School in Southwestern Colorado where his graduating class had only 12 students.
“We were so small we didn’t have a wrestling team until my junior year,” he said. “But being from a small town made me really want to come to Payson.”
Also influencing his decision to step away from the collegiate scene and into high school wrestling was the influence he can have in molding young people’s lives.
“Coaches in high school are more instrumental in who the wrestlers are, who they become,” he said.
“It’s not that way in college.”
The new coach first stepped in the Wilson Dome limelight Dec. 19 and 20 at the Rim Country Duals.
In the tournament, he received championship efforts from Ben Sandoval, Joey Spear, Ben Lee and Bryan Burke.
Sandoval finished 6-0 in the 135-pound class and Spear won the 103-pound title by defeating a Skyline opponent in the finals.
Lee (125) and Burke (215) also beat Skyline foes in their championship finals.
The four paced Payson to a 5-2 record and a third-place team finish.
Nick Goodman wrestled his way to a second-place finish in the 152-pound competition.
The Longhorns had four wrestlers grapple their way to bronze medals. They included Ryan Abraham (119), Jacob Cluff (130), Derek Williams (171) and Garrett McNeeley (hwt).