A Yellow Jacket gridiron curse that nauseated and dismayed Payson faithful for decades has been exorcised.
The devilish demon was chased away Friday, Oct. 17 in PHS stadium with the Longhorns’ 13-7 win over Blue Ridge.
Prior to the victory, the last time the Horns celebrated a win over the Jackets was in the 1998 state championship game at Mesa College.
In regular season play, Payson last beat Blue Ridge in 1981, also a state championship season.
Over the years, Payson players diligently toiled to expel the demons with plenty of pigskin incantation but nothing worked.
No one was more excited about Friday’s East Region triumph than head coach Josh Anderson who had lost twice to BR in his three seasons at Payson. Following the final gun, the coach was seen gyrating and celebrating on the sidelines as if he had just learned he was clutching the winning lottery ticket. School officials soon got in on the festivities by opening gates and allowing fans to flood onto the field to congratulate the players.
Senior Matt Wilson remembers the moments well.
“Bryan (Burke) and I were walking off the field and talking about what a great feeling it was.” he said. “I thought, ‘if it feels this good to beat Blue Ridge, I can’t wait to win state.’”
Wilson, an athletic defensive end and offensive tackle who stands 6 feet, 6 inches and tips the scales at a robust 265 pounds, turned in probably the finest game of his three-year varsity career.
“Thinking about the game, I believe it was my best one,” he said.
The senior strong man finished with a season-high 14 tackles, nine unassisted, and had one sack for a loss of eight yards.
But most importantly, Wilson helped contain Blue Ridge’s vaunted speed sweeps constantly turning them in or slowing them with his pursuit.
“Matt and Bryan did exactly what they were supposed to do at their defensive end spots, and they did it to perfection,” Anderson said.
Northern Arizona University, University of Nevada Las Vegas and the Air Force Academy are recruiting Wilson.
“I’m kind of thinking about NAU right now,” he said.
In addition to Wilson and Burke’s gridiron contributions against Blue Ridge, the Horns received solid defensive efforts from Tyler Savage, David Carlen and Shane Keith.
Carlen finished with a team-high 17 tackles, Savage had 16 and Keith 10.
Anderson lauded Carlen saying he “had just a flat-out great night on both sides of the ball ... I’m not talking about stats, I’m talking about his effort.”
The coach also praised the entire defense, “it was just stellar, including the play they actually ended up scoring on.”
But he believes there is room for improvement before the state tournament kicks off.
“We overcame many mistakes on defense just by swarming to the ball and making solid tackles,” he said. “It was a hard-hitting game throughout, and a very exciting game to watch, even though it was a low scoring game.”
One of the hard hits the coach was speaking about was a block sophomore Westin Gibson put on Blue Ridge’s highly heralded middle linebacker Steel Armstrong.
The stinging block sent Armstrong reeling and to the bench for one play.
“That was a good hit,” defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes said.
Armstrong played at Payson High School as a freshman and attended a University of Colorado football camp last summer with Wilson, Burke and Carlen.
“We all know each other pretty well,” Wilson said. “On some of their plays, he was assigned to block me.”
In addition to the Payson defense playing