Payson High School might next year field its finest football team since the 1998 state championship team that finished the season undefeated.
A talented senior group that has shown athletic promise since the players were in middle school fuels the optimism.
"We have all been waiting for this class, as well as the two classes below them to get into this position," head coach Josh Anderson said. "It's going to be a lot of fun and well worth the wait."
The athletes took to the field early this week to begin a spring practice that they and the entire Longhorn coaching staff hopes will eventually lead next fall to Payson High's third state football championship.
Present on opening day were 54 aspiring players.
"That's more kids than when I got here (two years ago)," Anderson said. "It's been awesome and a lot of fun to have spring ball for once."
In the returning nucleus of seniors, Ridge Halenar will be counted on as a team leader.
"He is going to be a three-year starter (at quarterback) and last year he also made our team better by being a starting safety," Anderson said.
"He is very tough to bring down and on defense he reads things very well."
Also expected to bring mental and physical toughness to the team is David Carlen who has been moved to fullback from the tight end position he played last year.
"He has worked very hard to get himself into the best possible shape and condition for his senior season," Anderson said.
On defense, Carlen will probably continue to hold down the middle linebacker position he manned last season when he was an all-region first team selection.
At 6-foot, 5-inch and 220 pounds, lineman Bryan Burke should be a difference maker on both sides of the ball.
"He is a big boy and has progressed very nicely since last season," Anderson said. "It will be very difficult for anyone to handle him one-on-one."
The bookend opposite Burke on the offensive and defensive lines is 6-foot, 7-inch, 235-pound Matt Wilson who is also an all region basketball player.
"He has the ability to understand and read offenses and defenses which gives him a great advantage to go along with his strength and speed," Anderson said.
Many believe Wilson has the talent to someday play at a D1 university.
Senior Nick Goodman will be out this season to earn the state championship that was denied his father, Ty, when the 1986 Longhorn team lost the state title game 7-0 to Snowflake.
Ty Goodman was an all-star signal caller on that team. Nick Goodman is well-rounded player who can be called upon to play different backfield positions.
"He is a very fast and hard runner," Anderson said. "He has also learned to be an effective blocker, which is key to any offense."
When the ground-oriented Horns go to the airways next season, a favorite target will be wide out Tyler Savage.
"Tyler has great hands but also is very fast and runs excellent routes," Anderson said.
Another senior expected to do great things is running back/safety Shane Keith.
"He is going to be a main reason we are going to achieve so much success," Anderson said.
Along with the group of talented seniors, Payson has a promising core of underclassmen, including Brandon Alexander, Payson Herring and Weston Gibson.
The potential of the seniors, junior and a handful of sophomores has Anderson anxiously awaiting the start of the 2008 campaign.
"The hype is in full effect for what we are going to accomplish next season, and rightfully so," he said. "Barring any injuries, academic issues or any other unforeseen issues we are going to have one exciting football season."
The Longhorns open the season Aug. 29 at Fountain Hills. On Aug. 22, the team will scrimmage the Camp Verde Cowboys on PHS field.
In addition to playing the usual beasts of the East, the Horns play non-region games against Winslow (Sept. 5), Florence (Sept. 12), Chino Valley (Sept. 19), and Bradshaw Mountain (Sept. 26).