The return of highly-talented running back Payson Herring to the Longhorn line-up has football faithful around the White Mountains wondering if he is enough of a difference-maker to lift PHS over the highly favored Snowflake Lobos.
The answer won’t be known until the final horn sounds this evening in Snowflake, but Herring proved last week, in the Horns’ surprisingly easy 42-7 win over Eloy Santa Cruz, that he is the real deal; rushing for 209 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries.
In that blowout, however, SC was not prepared for the speedster because he was playing in his first game this season and he is pretty much an unknown in the South Region where Eloy is housed.
In Snowflake, it’s a sure thing coach Adam Larsen and his staff are not about to overlook Herring.
They saw enough of him last year in Payson’s 52-15 win over the Lobos to know that he is a threat to go the distance anytime he touches the ball.
Herring finished the game as the Longhorns’ leading rusher with 152 yards, 99 of which came on two carries — TD darts of 60 and 39 yards.
Having witnessed those bursts and knowing what Herring did in the win over Santa Cruz most likely motivated the Lobos to spend much of the practice week designing a defense to stop, or at least slow, Herring.
But before we break our arms patting Herring on the back, let’s remember it’s the guys in the trenches, led by Shaffer Keith, Logan Garner and Mason Dacany, who do the down and dirty work which translates into wins.
Which means if Garner, Dacany, Keith and crew control the line of scrimmage, the Longhorns (2-3; 0-1) could be looking at their first East Region win of the season and a break-even overall record.
The Horns also have in their arsenal an excellent two-way threat in quarterback/safety Westin Gibson and a seasoned running back in Brandon Alexander, who has not yet rounded into his form of last season partly because of a string of injuries.
When the Horns are in need of short yardage, coach Matt Mayo might turn to Nick Johnson, a 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound fullback. Through the airways, 6-foot-5-inch Dakota Marshall is an inviting target, but must overcome the inexperience of not having played last season.
In the win over SC, he gave fans a brief glimpse of his potential scoring on a 50-yard pass reception from Gibson.
The Horns will also be buoyed against the Lobos by the expected return of wide receiver/defensive back Ryan Risland; a player injured last summer in passing league play.
Defensive coordinator Byron Quinlan is predicting, “He should help us on both sides of the ball.”
Snowflake is a team that dominated Payson for two decades before the demon-like spell was exorcised in 1999 by a Longhorn team that scored the winning TD in the final seconds on a fourth-down play action pass from Kyle Conway to Dusty Brockett.
There are fans that today continue to consider then-coach Jim Beall’s decision to forgo a game-tying field goal try in favor of a winning touchdown pass the gutsiest decision in PHS football history.
Following that first-ever win, Payson beat the Lobos only in 2005 and 2007 before last year’s championship team overwhelmed the Lobos once in the regular season and again in the playoffs.
Many Payson players from the 1970s and ’80s continue to regard Snowflake as the Longhorns’ biggest rival, even though the Lobos regard neighboring Show Low as public enemy No. 1.
Snowflake will take to tonight’s game a 4-1 record, marred only by last week’s gut-wrenching 33-29 loss to Blue Ridge.
In Lobo land, fans are wondering whether that loss coupled with an Oct. 9 game against Show Low will have Lobo players looking this evening past the Longhorns.
That’s doubtful; Larsen is too much of a seasoned coach to allow that to happen.
Multitalented quarterback Shawn Walker who has thrown for 586 yards and rushed for 458 more leads Snowflake. Both are team highs. He’s also scored six touchdowns.
Obviously, containing him will be a goal of Quinlan’s bandits.
When Walker goes to the airways, his favorite target has been Robby Martindell, a player many local fans will remember from last year’s baseball season when he and Ridge Halenar were locked in a nose-to-nose duel for the East batting championship.
This football season, Martindell has 10 catches for 277 yards.
He also is the team’s place kicker and has returned 26 kick offs for 1,196 yards, including a longest of 60 yards.
For Payson to win this evening, special teams must keep Martindell in check on KO returns and force the Lobos to drive the entire length of the field for scores.
In short, no short fields.
Defensively, the big three of Jordan Hunt, Brandt Perkins and Colton Reidhead lead the Lobos. The trio has combined for 94 tackles.