There’s now no doubt that the most competitive football in small town Arizona is played in White Mountain and Rim Country rural high schools.
Evidence surfaced June 12 in Surprise where the North football team punished the South 30-0 in the annual Arizona Football Coaches Association All-Star game.
The North team featured many players from the 3A East Region, which includes Payson, Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Round Valley.
From the 2A North, St. Johns was represented by All-Arizona running back Shad Bride.
Even the North coaching staff had a distinctive rural Arizona flair with former Payson High School coaches Kenny Hayes and Josh Anderson, now of Dakota State University, on the staff. Also coaching the North was Rim Country Middle School teacher and PHS assistant coach Jake Swartwood.
With the bevy of talented players and coaches leading the way, the North cruised to the win scoring on three straight possession in the first period and another in the second.
While the offense, triggered by Payson’s Ridge Halenar, was clicking on all cylinders, the North defense was equally as dominating.
The “D” — which featured former Longhorns David Carlen, Bryan Burke, Matt Wilson and Shane Keith — held the vaunted South offense to 78 yards of total offense.
“Our defense was stellar,” said Anderson, who also lauded Blue Ridge’s Steel Armstrong for his efforts in the win.
“Steel had a great game at linebacker,” he said.
But Anderson saved his greatest praise for the Longhorn all-stars, players he had coached since arriving at PHS three years ago.
“I was excited about coaching those guys from Payson one last time and I was pleased that they all got to start,” he said. “They really showed why Payson had such great success this year in football as they all dominated during the game.”
Especially brilliant on the celestial evening was Halenar who was named a captain and the game’s most valuable player.
“Ridge played a key role in the game as he ran the ball and got our team out of many difficult situations,” Anderson said. “He also had a great night passing.”
Halenar finished the evening completing five of nine passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
On his first scoring aerial, which came late in the first quarter, he hooked up with T.J. Peters of Round Valley on a 40-yard scoring strike.
Late in the third quarter with the game salted away, Halenar connected with Keith on a 45-yard score.
“Shane caught the ball on the sideline, broke a tackle and went another 20 yards for the TD,” Anderson said.
In addition to Halenar’s passing, he rushed five times for 38 yards.
Defensively, Burke got the starting nod as the strong side defensive end in Hayes’ 43 scheme. Wilson — who is bound for Northern Arizona University on a football/academic scholarship — started on offense, but also saw playing time at defensive end and tackle.
Carlen, PHS’s starting middle linebacker the past three seasons, opened at outside linebacker, but also played in the middle slot.
Keith, a late replacement on the all-star team, opened at free safety.
“Shane was a great leader for our defense,” Anderson said.
The coach praised his defensive stars saying Burke, “caused problems all night, he had a couple of sacks, tackles and tackles for losses.”
Burke spent most of the game chasing South quarterback Matt Inman of Yuma Catholic, the state’s career passing leader.
“He had him running for his life,” Anderson said.
With Wilson playing left tackle on offense, Anderson had the confidence all game long to call power plays to that side of the line.
“He was having his way with opponents,” Anderson said.
Although Carlen moved to the outside backer spot in lieu of his former spot in the middle, he was able to use his outstanding speed to keep the South at bay.
“I’m not certain how many tackles he ended with, but he was in on almost all of them,” Anderson said.
Carlen also saw some playing time at fullback and one play at tailback.
In addition to the contributions from Payson’s contingent, the North was buoyed by Blue Ridge’s Dustin Simmons who had two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
The only scoring opportunity the South enjoyed was a 70-yard pass from Inman to Coolidge’s Kevin Mitchell that was called back on a penalty.
Halenar’s naming as the game MVP was the second time in the past four years that a former Longhorn has won the honor. In 2006, running back Luke Apfel was chosen the game’s most outstanding player.
Also, the selection of five former Longhorns to the all-star games was a first in the program’s history. The previous mark was four all-star players.