It would be difficult to find a small-town football fan who expects the outcome of tonight’s Blue Ridge vs. Payson football clash to be the same as last year when the Longhorns beat the Yellow Jackets twice, including a double overtime victory in the state championship game.
That’s because the Horns (2-5, 0-2 in the East) are struggling mightily and Blue Ridge (6-0, 2-0) appears to be a favorite to once again to earn a berth in the 3A title game.
The Jackets, a team that seems to never rebuild, but rather reload, is state top-ranked and has been tested only once.
That gut-check came in the Jackets’ 33-29 win over the Snowflake Lobos.
In the narrow win, the Jackets were outscored 29-14 in the second half and out-gained by more than 100 yards.
Also, giving up 29 points is almost unheard of in Jacket land where teams are built on rock-solid defense and state championships are each season’s expectation.
Payson enjoyed a banner undefeated season last year, but the 2009 team is a mere shell of its predecessor for a variety of reasons including a new coaching staff, the loss of several of last year’s senior leaders, an injury-riddled lineup and probably the toughest schedule in school history.
Nonetheless, Payson fans — as well as the players — were expecting more from this team and there’s plenty of finger-pointing and grumbling going on among Longhorn faithful.
Rendering success tonight vs. BR even more challenging is the loss of two of Payson’s most talented players — Brandon Alexander and Westin Gibson.
Alexander suffered a concussion in last week’s 15-7 loss to Fountain Hills. Because it was his second concussion of the season, he has been advised not to return to play and risk further injury.
As a running back and defensive back, Alexander has been a big part of the Longhorn football program for the past three seasons.
Gibson sat out last week’s loss to Fountain Hills with an ankle injury that will sideline him for the remainder of the season.
He might have been the most athletically gifted player on the team holding down quarterback, running back and safety responsibilities.
The good news regarding the injury is that doctors expect him to recover, “and be 100 percent for baseball,” said his father Slade.
Last baseball season, he was one of the 3A East Region’s most accomplished fielders and hitters.
The status of shifty running back Payson Herring, who suffered a hip pointer two weeks ago and did not play against Fountain Hills, is unknown.
If all three are out, Matt Mayo might be forced to scour into the junior varsity ranks to find replacements.
While the Horns are reeling from all sorts of maladies, Blue Ridge appears to be on top of its game with standouts like Keevan Schimmel (No. 10), Jake Meixler (No. 16) and Alex Stebbins (No. 32) shouldering the gridiron load.
Schimmel is the Jackets’ backfield ace with 351 yards in 30 carries.
Meixler, the starting signal caller, is an adept, accurate passer as evidenced by his 36 completions in 48 attempts for 723 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Most impressive, he’s only thrown one interception all season long.
Stebbins is the Jackets’ defensive leader with a team-high 49 tackles. He’s also been credited with two interceptions, three caused fumbles and a sack.
As accomplished as the players are, the stability in the coaching staff has been critical in Blue Ridge’s years of success
Head coach Paul Moro and assistants Gary Williams and Bob London have been together for 25 seasons giving the Jackets a veteran, cohesive and knowledgeable staff that seems to get the best out of their players’ season after season.
There are those fans around the East wondering whether revenge will be on Yellow Jacket minds in light of last year’s two losses to Payson, one in which the Horns roared back from a 21-0 halftime deficit.
Probably not, these two teams are completely different than last year’s and the Jackets will probably be focused mostly on winning the state championship, a title the team hasn’t captured since 2004.
Kick off this evening is at 7 p.m.