Coach Mike Conway swells with pride as he recalls his team’s recently completed championship season.
“We had a lot of kids that were standouts,” he says. “It was a great group, they all contributed, every one of them.”
As one of the coaches of the Payson Bears, along with Jason Bland, Jeremy Ricke and Slade Gibson, Conway helped lead the team to a 6-2 record and the Northern Arizona Youth Football League Junior Division (third-fourth grades) championship.
The divisional championship was the second successive for the Bears. However, last year the team won the crown while participating in the Central Arizona Youth Football Association. Last spring, Payson moved its youth league teams out of CAYFA into the White Mountains-based NAYFL.
The Bears nailed down the prestigious gridiron title Nov. 7 in Snowflake with a pulsating 14-8 win over the Winslow Bulldogs.
The win was more than a bit of revenge for family Ursidae because the Dogs had muzzled Payson, 16-0, during the regular season.
“But we were without two of our key players,” Conway said.
The pair of missing team members were quarterback Clayton Randall and middle linebacker Sammy Bland.
Following the first Payson vs. Winslow clash, Gibson predicted that once Randall and Bland returned to the team, the Bears would be the superior team.
“We knew with those two boys back, it would be different when we met again,” he said.
His prediction was on target — in the championship showdown, Randall dominated the game, rushing for two touchdowns, one of which was a 40-yard scamper.
“He was the difference in the game,” coach Conway said.
Sammy Bland contributed by helping plug the tackle-to-tackle gaps, as did teammate Jesse Conway.
“In the second half we moved Jesse to nose guard where he created havoc for the Winslow coaching staff,” Gibson said.
The win marked the culmination of Payson’s inaugural year in NAFYL.
Payson Youth Football League President Daniel Way is calling the past season an overwhelming success.
He says all six local teams earned playoff berths and two of the teams, the Minor Raiders and Bears reached playoff bowl games. The Minor Raiders finished second, falling to Show Low in its bowl game.
Coach Billy Hardt’s middle school-aged Senior Raiders competed in a Verde Valley-based league and are still in the playoffs that will wrap up Nov. 21 in Cottonwood.
Way says he “would like to thank everyone who gave of their time this year and all the great youths who played.”
Bear team members were Wyatt Taylor, Cody Moore, Tannger Gibson, Shad Sayer, Kelton Turney, Aidron Moore, Tyler Bowman, Matt Minard, Kolten Ricke, Trenton Cline, Tim McCarty, Eric Coppernoll, David Pasquini, Emma Nelson, Bland, Conway and Randall.