The 3A conference’s only two remaining unbeaten teams collide tomorrow, Nov. 22, at Paradise Valley High School for the right to play the following week in the Arizona state football championship.
The final four game, which kicks off at 7 p.m., pits the Wickenburg Wranglers against the Payson Longhorns. Both teams enter the fray with 12-0 records.
In the other semifinal game, which begins at 4 p.m. at PVHS, Blue Ridge (11-1) plays Fountain Hills (11-1).
Ironically, the only loss the Yellow Jackets and Falcons had this season was to Payson.
Wickenburg has been the top-ranked team in the state since the onset of the season, but the Longhorns, who are second-ranked, have played a much tougher schedule in the rugged East Region. Wickenburg is aligned in the football-challenged West Region against the likes of Parker (0-10), Red Rock (2-8), River Valley (4-6) and South Pointe (4-5).
In fact, the Wranglers entered the state tournament with a No. 4 seed despite the fact the team finished the regular season unbeaten.
In the power points system the AIA uses to seed teams to state, schools are awarded points on the number of victories by their opponents.
Wickenburg’s regular season foes didn’t rack up enough wins to send the Wranglers into the state tournament with a higher seed.
Although Fountain Hills (No. 3) and Blue Ridge (No. 2) had a loss, both were seeded higher than the Wranglers.
Wickenburg is no stranger to the state football tournament, having advanced three times in the past four years to the final four. The Wranglers lost to Coolidge in the 2005 semifinals and fell to the Bears again in the 2006 championship game. Last year, Wickenburg lost in the quarterfinals to Round Valley.
The Wranglers avenged that defeat Nov. 15 by rolling over the Elks 37-13 in a state quarterfinal game.
In whipping RV, the Wranglers’ blitzing defense and combination zone and man-to-man coverage in the secondary confused heralded quarterback Hayden Eager into throwing three interceptions. He was also sacked three times.
Wickenburg also showed a little trickery, which Payson must guard against.
The trick involved a halfback pass on a reverse from Chad Peterson to Jordan Pollei on a fourth-and-19 situation.
Longhorn defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes’ bandits must also find a way to slow Wickenburg’s ground-oriented option running attack triggered by All-West region quarterback Dallas Mills.
The Wranglers also have two top-notch running backs in seniors Sheldon Murphy and Chance Murphy who combined for about 300 yards rushing against Round Valley.
“Their running backs do a great job of breaking tackles so we’ll need to keep up our swarm tackling we’ve done all year long,” coach Josh Anderson said. “They are a run-first team, as we are, so it’s going to be a quick game as the play clock goes, but a very hard-nosed, smash-mouth game as well.”
Anderson’s assertion that the Wranglers are a run-first team was never more evident than it was in the team’s 28-7 state first round win over Coolidge.
Wickenburg finished with 273 yards in total offense, 263 of which came on the ground.
In addition to running the option, the Wranglers have run some single wing and unbalanced line.
Payson might have the dynamic duo to stop the Wrangler attack in crunch brothers David Carlen and Tyler Savage.
Carlen, a middle linebacker is second in the East in tackles with 150. At outside linebacker, Savage has 117 tackles to rank third. He also has four interceptions.
If Payson is to reach the title game for the first time since 1998, the Horns must also not turn into their own worst enemies by committing penalties.
Although there are those questioning the validity of the 11 flags thrown against Payson in the team’s 36-19 state quarterfinal victory over Snowflake, the fact of the matter is, the Horns must play smart to walk away with a victory.
Payson will counter a stout Wickenburg defense that has six shutouts this season with a run-first mentality that features David Carlen and Brandon Alexander running behind a mammoth offensive line anchored by seniors Matt Wilson and Bryan Burke.
The pair is to the offensive and defensive lines as amoeba and paramecium are to prototypical protozoans; which means they’re darn significant.
The blocking of Wilson and Burke has cleared the way for Carlen to run for a team-high 924 yards, much of it gained between the tackles where real estate can be hard to come by.
With 816 yards, Alexander is second on the team in rushing.
When the Longhorns do go to the airways, quarterback Ridge Halenar has had some good outings throwing for 1,037 yards.
Halenar’s favorite target has been senior teammate Tyler Savage who has 389 yards in receptions. Cody York, Westin Gibson and Alexander are other targets Halenar frequently looks to.
In crucial prep showdowns involving two heralded and unbeaten teams, the outcome has often been determined by a field goal or extra point.
That’s where Payson might have a slight advantage in that Josh Frewin has booted well. During the regular season he was the second ranked kicker in the 3A conference behind a Winslow player. He has scored 46 points on 40 extra points and two field goals.
If the Horns defeat Wickenburg, the team will play in the state championship game set for 5:07 p.m. Nov. 29 in the Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.