Payson's 43-0 victory over the Florence Gophers has earned the Longhorns newfound state respect.
In two polls since the triumph, the Horns (3-0) are now ranked second and first, up from the third and fourth slots the team held during the first two weeks of the season.
In most polls, the Wickenburg Wranglers are the state's No. 1 team. Trailing are East tough guys Blue Ridge (3-0) and Snowflake (3-0).
Round Valley (2-1) is also ranked despite losing a close decision to defending 2A state champion St. Johns who also beat 3A defending state champion Show Low.
In Payson's Sept. 12 victory over homestanding Florence, the Horns came out on fire, lighting up the scoreboard for 22 first quarter points. The red-hot Longhorns tacked on 21 more in the second stanza before coasting to the victory.
While PHS's stats are not eye popping, 169 yards rushing and 92 passing, the Horn offense was reaping the rewards of a stiff defense and solid special team play.
"They did a great job of giving us good field position so we really didn't rack up a ton of offensive plays or yardage, but that is a good thing in this case," coach Josh Anderson said.
On the ground, the running of David Carlen and Brandon Alexander, who had 51 and 38 yards respectively, sparked the offense.
"David is a tough runner and has great speed to go with his power," Anderson said. "Our running backs did a great job of running through tackles and making nice full-speed cuts."
Most of the highly successful PHS football teams of the past have relied on a single back for yardage. Tom Fruth, Ty Chilson, Matt Rauh, Waylon Pettet and Luke Apfel were all more than 1,500-yard season rushers.
But the current team rushes by committee with Nick Goodman, Payson Herring, Cliff Lopez, Nick Johnson, Carlen and Alexander taking turns toting the pigskin.
Clearing the way for the backs is the biggest and most experienced offensive line in the history of the school. Anchoring it are three-year starters Bryan Burke (6 feet, 4 inches, 227 pounds) and Matt Wilson (6 feet, 6 inches, 265 pounds). Also on it are two-year starters Schaffer Keith (6 feet, 1 inch, 284 pounds) and Logan Garner (5 feet, 9 inches, 232 pounds). The lone newcomer is Mason Dacanay (5 feet, 10 inches, 297 pounds) at right guard.
As huge as the line is, Anderson was not satisfied with the group's rush blocking at Florence.
"I thought our line did not run block very well but did a great job of pass blocking," he said.
"We really worked hard on pass protection and that seemed to be very sound.
"But I guess it took the concentration out of our run blocking for one game."
The coach promises to correct that flaw before a Sept. 19 homecoming game against Chino Valley.
"That's not going to happen again."
Through the airways, quarterback Ridge Halenar turned in one of the most efficient efforts of his varsity career completing five of seven passes for 92 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.
"Ridge did a great job with the time he had in getting his reads and throwing the ball to the open receiver," Anderson said. "He's been very accurate the past two games."
On the receiving end of Halenar's tosses were Tyler Savage and Shane Keith. Savage caught two passes for 16 yards and a TD. Keith hauled in two aerials for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, Carlen led the team in tackles with 13 and also had a sack.
The PHS middle linebacker now leads the East Region in tackles with 38.
Savage, also a linebacker, finished with 10 tackles and a sack. Brothers Nick and Max Johnson combined for 13 tackles. Max Johnson also returned an interception for a TD, as he did a week earlier in the Horns' win over Fountain Hills. That one, however, was called back on a penalty.
"I thought we did a great job of taking care of their O-line and letting our linebackers run free and make tackles all night," Anderson said.
"Our DBs have done an outstanding job of shutting down the pass."
The Payson defense did not allow Florence to cross midfield until midway through the third quarter.
Because of the lopsided score, the coaching staff was able to get many reserves, including a talented sophomore group, into the game.
"Our second and third string guys had a chance to get some good experience in a varsity game," Anderson said.
There is a hitch, however, in their performances.
"They have yet to come up with some quality plays on offense," Anderson said.
Next up is Friday's homecoming clash against Chino Valley. Kick off is 7 p.m.