As strange as it sounds, PHS football coach Josh Anderson is anxiously looking forward to an upcoming stretch in which the Horns (5-0) play five vicious East Region opponents, three of whom are state top-five ranked.
“Honestly, I’m very thankful our preseason is over and we came through the games pretty clean,” he said. “Now we are on to the East Region games, which is good old-fashioned football that I love.”
So, what specifically does the coach adore about traditionally brutal East action?
“It’s fast, it’s tough and you had better be ready to play on every down,” he answered.
The Horns open the five-game stretch today, Oct. 3, at Show Low against the defending state champion Cougars (3-2).
Payson kicks off at 7 p.m. as the 3A leader in power points and state second-ranked in most polls.
But Anderson contends the ranking won’t mean much once the pigskin begins to spiral.
“Nobody cares who’s got what kind of record or where we are ranked in the state,” he said.
Although Show Low won the state crown last season and were favored to be a title contender again this year, the Cats have been nipped twice this year. One defeat was to 2A defending state champion St. Johns and the other to an out-of-state school.
Those losses haven’t diminished the respect Anderson has for the ferocious felines.
“I like what I see from them and we know this will be a huge challenge to go to the state champions’ home field and play some ball,” he said. “They may not have the same size as us, but they are very quick and aggressive and they all get to the ball on every play.”
Offensively, Cougar standouts include running backs Chris McGown and Tonike Jackson as well as linemen Gavin Clark and Chase Adams.
“Show Low has an offense that takes time to develop and only gets better week by week,” Anderson said. “They seem to be right where they need to be at this point in the season.”
On defense, the Cats are led by safety-linebacker Clay Hathaway who Horn baseball fans might remember as a standout player last spring on Cougar coach David Nikolaus’ diamond nine.
Other stalwarts are inside linebacker Cody Hawkins, defensive back Cody Bell and Jackson who plays end.
As good as those players are touted to be in the White Mountain football hot bed, the gridiron fact is the Cougars lost most of last year’s stars including Jared McArthur, Derek Giger and Jordan Nikolaus.
McArthur, the quarterback, was the 3A state offensive player of the year.
As good as ’98?
Payson will take to the Show Low a talent-laden team that some longtime boosters are proclaiming to be as good as the 1998 undefeated state championship team.
That argument won’t be settled until mid-November when the 3A champion is crowned.
While the ’98 team relied on stars like Cable Morris, Marc Bennett, Josh Barnhart and Mike Barker, the current team fends off the contributions of Ridge Halenar, David Carlen, Tyler Savage, Matt Wilson and Bryan Burke.
Halenar pulls the trigger in the Longhorn offense and enters the showdown just off the Deuce of Clubs as the East third-ranked passer with 495 yards.
Carlen is third in the East in rushing with 494 yards and is the region’s top defender with 57 tackles.
Savage, the weakside linebacker, has 47 takedowns and is second in the region behind Carlen.
Wilson and Burke, both brutes, anchor both the offensive and defensive lines.
Because of their size, Wilson is 6 feet, 6 inches, 265 pounds and Burke is 6 feet, 4 inches, 227 pounds, the two are tough to deal with no matter what side of the ball they are aligned on.
In Show Low, the Horns will probably be without the services of Cody York and Shane Keith who are nursing injuries. Both play slot back and defensive back positions.
The pair could be replaced in the lineup by Westin Gibson and Cody Sexton.
Following the clash in Show Low, the Horns take on Round Valley (Oct. 10), Blue Ridge (Oct. 17), Alchesay (Oct. 24) and Snowflake (Oct. 31).
The state playoffs being Nov. 7.