There’s no doubt the Beasts of the East are the kings of 3A football.
Any uncertainty about small-town gridiron life was erased Nov. 22 at Paradise Valley High School where East regular season runner-up Blue Ridge beat the South’s Fountain Hills 40-0 and East champion Payson knocked off the state’s No. 1-ranked Wickenburg, 28-7.
Blue Ridge’s and Payson’s state semifinal wins set up a state championship clash that will certainly turn into a game for the ages.
It will kick off at 5:08 p.m., Nov. 29 at Northern Arizona University’s Walkup Skydome.
Since the Horns beat Blue Ridge 13-7 on Oct. 17, the gold-medal clash will be the all-East Region finale most prep fans and boosters had predicted all season long.
While Coolidge, Wickenburg and Fountain Hills draw much of the big city pollsters’ attention, it is the East Region teams that most often dominate state tournament play.
In whipping vaunted Wickenburg, Payson unleashed the devastating one-two punch of running back David Carlen and quarterback Ridge Halenar on the Wranglers.
Each scored two touchdowns, lifting the Horns to a 28-0 lead with 8:07 remaining in the game.
Although it was Halenar and Carlen doing much of the damage, it was two-way lineman Logan Garner who drew the coaching staff’s praise.
“Wow, did he have an exciting game,” coach Josh Anderson said. “He was a force on defense and on offense, he set up our blocking schemes perfectly.”
Defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes agrees, “Logan had a great game.”
The Horns first got on the board with 54 seconds left in the opening quarter on Carlen’s one-yard plunge to pay dirt.
A 31-yard pass from Halenar to sophomore wide receiver Westin Gibson set up the score. The TD also capped a 14-play, 76-yard drive.
Then, with nine seconds remaining in the first half and the Longhorns knocking on the Wranglers’ door at the 9-yard line, Halenar used a quick snap to sneak into the end zone from one-yard out. The TD and Josh Frewin’s conversion kick gave Payson a 14-0 lead.
The drive that preceded the TD might have been the most impressive in recent Longhorn history.
It consumed 18 plays, covered 99 yards and was set up by the Wranglers’ failed fake field goal attempt that came up less than a yard short.
“The goal line stand was huge,” Anderson said. “Taking it 99 yards to pay dirt with seconds before the half ended was the biggest defining moment of the game.”
The coach is dead-on with his assessment. Had the Wranglers scored on the fake field goal, the game would have been tied 7-7 and the eventual outcome might have been different.
The 14-0 halftime lead turned into a 21-0 cushion after Wickenburg senior Sheldon Murphy fumbled the second-half kickoff and Ryan Schatz’s recovered at the 15-yard line. Two plays later, Halenar found Gibson open on an 8-yard TD pass. About two minutes later, 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound, defensive end
Matt Wilson picked off a pass deep in Wrangler territory and returned it 23 yards. Three plays later, Carlen rambled 1 yard into the end zone and Frewin toed the extra point.
Wickenburg, the West Region champion, scored its only TD late in the game on Chance Thompson’s 1-yard plunge. It was set up by a 17-play, 76-yard drive.
Although the Wranglers won the battle for time of possession, 26:37 to 21:23, the Longhorns racked up 285 yards of total offense compared to Wickenburg’s 126.
Halenar led the PHS rushing attack picking up 82 yards in 10 carries. Junior tailback Brandon Alexander had 77 yards in 17 attempts.
Through the airways, Halenar completed five of 11 passes for 64 yards and a TD. He also had one intercepted.
The sure-handed Gibson led the team in receptions with three catches for 41 yards.
Defensively, Carlen — playing middle linebacker as he has done all season long — set the pace for Hayes’ bandits with 20 tackles.
Nick Johnson had 14 and Shane Keith 10.
Although defensive ends Bryan Burke and Wilson finished with just nine tackles, the pair helped the Longhorns dominate the line of scrimmage against players as big as the Horns have played this season.
In fact, the Wrangler line was almost as big as the huge Payson front, but obviously was not as quick or athletic.
Burke and Wilson also teamed with Garner to lead an offensive line that found itself blocking against several different schemes, including 3-4, 4-3 and 4-4 alignments.
“We practiced mainly for the 3-4 because that’s what they’ve run all year,” Anderson said. “But all year teams have shown up with different defensive fronts when they play us.”
Those switches, which sometimes included putting eight players on or near the line of scrimmage, might be because the Longhorns thrive on the ground-pounding power option offense and usually pass only when absolutely necessary.
On special teams, Cody York only punted on two occasions but lifted one that traveled 47 yards. Gibson returned one Wrangler kick off 13 yards and two punts for a total of nine yards.