When the Payson Longhorns and the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets square off Saturday in Flagstaff for the 3A state football championship, fans and boosters will have the chance to see some of the finest players in Arizona.
Both teams’ rosters are filled with talented and well-coached players, some of whom are D1 prospects.
For Payson, defensive ends Bryan Burke (6 feet, 4 inches; 227 pounds) and Matt Wilson (6 feet, 6 inches; 265 pounds) are both receiving college feelers.
Tyler Savage (6 feet, 3 inches; 186 pounds) is not being overlooked as either a linebacker or receiver.
Payson fans won’t be surprised if Longhorn David Carlen (6 feet, 2 inches; 214 pounds) also takes his gridiron act to the next level.
In Lakeside, middle linebacker Steel Armstrong (6 feet, 1 inch; 225 pounds) is also being recruited.
Armstrong, who as a freshman was an all-region player for Payson, is the Yellow Jackets’ leading tackler with 161 takedowns.
Playing fullback, he has rushed 78 times for 527 yards or an average of 6.76 yards per carry.
Also for BR, do-everything senior Griffin Strum leads the East in interceptions with six, and tops the region in scoring with 177 points.
He’s also second in sacks (6) and third in rushing (1,557 yards).
Burke leads the East in sacks with seven, has 74 tackles and has built a reputation as a one-man wrecking crew, whether he is rushing the passer or defending sweeps, counters and powers.
Wilson has four sacks for 30 yards in losses, one interception, a fumble recovery and 84 tackles, 41 of them unassisted. As bookends on the Horn defensive line, Wilson and Burke give Payson perhaps the finest combo in the conference.
Playing tackles on offense, the pair has helped the Longhorns become the finest rushing team in the state by constantly opening holes for the Horns’ stable of running backs.
When quarterback Ridge Halenar, who has thrown for 1,101 yards, goes into his five-step drop or sprints out to pass, the two have protected him well.
Savage is third in the East in tackles with 140, tied for second in interceptions with four and is fifth in receiving with 389 yards.
Also, he has the lanky frame and athletic ability that college recruiters look for in their prospects.
Carlen’s 189 tackles leads the East. From his middle linebacker slot, he also has two sacks and one fumble recovery.
Playing fullback, he leads the Horns in rushing with 987 yards on a team-high 108 carries. He also has 13 touchdowns.
Among the younger players fans will get a glimpse of at the state championship game are running back Payson Herring and wide receiver/defensive back Westin Gibson. Both were sophomores listed on the junior varsity roster when the season opened. Herring has been sidelined most of the playoffs with a knee injury, but coach Josh Anderson says he’s recovered and will return to the lineup at full speed.
The rapidly improving and very talented Gibson will give fans a sneak peak at Payson High’s future.
Of course, one can’t write about the state’s finest without mentioning Halenar.
While he’s not a prototypical quarterback at 5 feet, 10 inches and 200 pounds, he has pulled the trigger successfully in the Horns’ power option offense since he was a sophomore.
He’s also one of the conference’s finest safeties where his hard-nosed attitude renders him a solid tackler and a capable pass defender.
The bottom line is that Blue Ridge and Payson didn’t combine for 25 victories without having some of Arizona’s most superb athletes on their rosters.
The NAU Walkup Skydome is the perfect venue to get an up close and personal look at them in action.