The return of shifty and speedy running back Payson Herring to the Longhorn roster appears to be the catalyst the struggling football team needs to be competitive in the upcoming rough and tumble East Region campaign.
Herring, playing in his first game of the 2009 season, was a one-man wrecking crew in the Horns’ 42-7 homecoming win over Eloy Santa Cruz.
Herring starred last season for the state champion Horns, but was forced to sit out the first three games of this year because he moved out of PUSD and then returned.
Administrators wanted to make sure his paperwork was complete in order to avoid another Rhea Cosay-like eligibility incident that rocked PHS in 2007.
“Payson was hungry to be back on the field,” head coach Matt Mayo said. “He is a part of the Payson family and we are excited to have him back.”
Herring wasted little time in making his presence known, lighting a fire in a Longhorn offense that was a mere flicker away from being extinguished.
With Dust Devil tacklers missing and falling by the wayside on each run, Herring racked up whopping 206 yards on 11 carries. He also scored three touchdowns, including one on an 80-yard run that might have even surprised the PHS coaching staff.
With 3:16 remaining in the third quarter and the Horns at their own 20-yard line protecting a 35-0 lead, Herring took a handoff on a a dive play that is usually good for a few hard-earned yards.
But he squirted and squirmed his way through the dazzled SC defense before outrunning every defender to pay dirt.
Herring’s antics were nothing knew to PHS fans, who remember several of his dazzling runs last year when he was earning the title “sophomore sensation.”
When he moved during the summer to the Valley, apparently to enroll at Caesar Chavez HS, fans thought they had seen the last of him.
With Herring back in the Longhorn fold, the gridiron future looks much brighter.
“Payson gives us added depth in the backfield, but more importantly, he is a great kid and a great leader,” Mayo said.
Herring has returned at a crucial time because Payson High has a vital East region game just over the horizon — Oct. 2 at Snowflake.
With Herring paving the way in the win over Santa Cruz, the Horns built a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and expanded it to 35-0 at halftime.
In the second half, head coach Matt Mayo began substituting at will, which came as a welcome show of good sportsmanship coming on the heels of Show Low coach Randy Ricedorf’s decision to leave his son — Rathan, the starting quarterback — in a game long enough to set a record of nine TD passes in the Cougars’ 67-0 thumping of Chinle.
The Horns’ (2-3 overall, 0-1 in the East) performance against Santa Cruz represented a huge improvement in both offense and defense from the first four games in which the “O” didn’t click and the “D” struggled to defend power sweeps and the passing game.
Defensive coordinator Byron Quinlan’s bandits held SC to a total of 189 yards, 104 of which came through the airways.
SC signal-caller Orland Meza completed just four of 19 passes and had one intercepted.
Eric Lucio, the Dust Devils’ leading rusher, picked up just 63 yards on six carries.
Kadeem Fields scored SC’s single touchdown with 2:04 remaining in the game, and most of the Longhorns’ reserves on the field.
Offensively, the name of the game was “The Payson Herring Show,” but junior quarterback Westin Gibson also turned in a good effort, perfectly completing two-of-two passes for 102 yards and a TD.
His scoring pass, which came with 54 seconds remaining in the first half, was a 50-yarder to Dakota Marshall. It capped a three-play, 80-yard drive.
Big Mason Dacanay, who normally spends his time in the trenches, enjoyed a lineman’s dream, hauling in a 20-yard pass reception from reserve quarterback Jake Sleeper.
Mayo attributed some of the reasons for the win to a change in strategies, “We shifted our play-calling to focus on some things we feel we execute better.
“We had much better execution on both sides of the ball.”
The coach also believes improved depth will aid the Longhorns during the stretch run.
“We have some kids in new positions to balance out playing time and keep starters fresh for the second half,” he said.
Quinlan is also optimistic that defensive back/wide receiver Ryan Risland’s return to the team will be a huge plus.
“He should help us on both sides of the ball,” he said. “We are finally starting to get healthier.”
Risland broke is collarbone in a summer passing league tournament.
BR edges Lobos
In other games around the state, the top-ranked Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets — just about everyone’s pick to win the 3A state title — survived a huge Snowflake second-half comeback to edge the Lobos 33-29.
Blue Ridge took early 19-0 and 28-7 leads, but the Lobos roared back into contention with the help of several determined drives and a successful on-side kick.
Snowflake entered the game 4-0 and state fifth-ranked.
Also in the East, Show Low (4-0) whipped Eagar Round Valley 49-13.Third-ranked Estrella Foothills (5-0) beat Phoenix South Pointe 68-12, and No. 4 Wickenburg (5-0) bested Chino Valley 21-0.