Say goodbye to the Beasts of the East.
The football rivalries that burned red hot over the past two decades involving the White Mountain high schools and Payson are at an end.
The flame was extinguished by an Arizona Interscholastic Association mandated realignment that did away with the former conference/region alignment and replaced those with divisions and sections.
On Dec. 6, the AIA executive board approved the placement of high school teams in sections by sports. Earlier, Payson had been placed in Division IV along with about 40 other teams.
In that division, Payson will become next year a member of Section III along with 10 other schools including Parker, River Valley, Mingus, Wickenburg, Glendale Cortez, Estrella Foothills, Wickenburg and others.
Payson is the only 3A East Region team assigned to Section III in football.
The other East teams — Alchesay, Blue Ridge, Show Low and Snowflake — were sent to Division IV Section I.
Which means those great rivalry football games pitting Payson against the likes of the Yellow Jackets, Lobos and Cougars are no more unless the schools happen to meet in season-ending division (state) tournaments.
Sending Payson packing was no surprise to old-timers — the school has long been a stepchild during AIA realignments. Due to the town’s geographical location in the center of the state, AIA bigwigs have been able to shuffle the Horns into just about any region or section in Arizona.
Over the years, PHS has been a member of B Central, B West, A West, A Central, A East, 3A East and 4A Grand Canyon.
Former PHS wrestling coach Dennis Pirch recalls Longhorn teams competing in the south and “traveling to tournaments in Benson and Tucson.”
Pirch says about the only region PHS has not been assigned is the North with the reservation schools.
Ronnie McDaniel, a former area law enforcement officer and local justice of the peace whose PHS basketball number has been retired and now hangs in Wilson Dome, remembers the Longhorns playing in Class B but with a makeshift schedule.
“We went all over the state, to Fredonia, Marana, Antelope, Seligman and Parker,” he said.
Contrary to what has happened to PHS, the White Mountain schools have remained pretty much stable as members of the A and 3A East.
Payson’s assignment to Section I means the Longhorns will no longer be a member the region widely considered the most competitive in small-town Arizona high school football.
With Blue Ridge, Show Low, Snowflake and Payson continually fielding top-notch teams, the 3A champion almost always came from the East.
In fact, in last year’s state football tournament three of the final four teams were from the East.
Also two East schools, Blue Ridge and Show Low, reached the finals.
PHS football coach Byron Quinlan is taking the realignment in stride saying, “I will miss the competitiveness of the 3A East, but I believe all three sections will provide some great games.”
AIA officials have touted the new division/section alignment as a cost savings to schools.
But there are those questioning how traveling to Parker and River Valley could possibly be a cost- or time-saving trip.
Parker is about a 250-mile journey and takes four-plus hours on a school bus. River Valley, near Laughlin, Nev. is about a 290-mile jaunt and the trip will take more than five hours on a bus.
Also a trip to Wickenburg is no walk around the corner as the two towns are 140 miles apart and travel must be through congested Phoenix area freeways where traffic often crawls along at a turtle’s pace.
Quinlan has his concerns about the trips to Parker and River Valley. “Hopefully we can flip-flop years in which we only have to travel (every other season) out to ‘California.’”
He also identifies with those who put together the new alignment saying, “River Valley and Parker are interesting draws — I’m not sure what section they would have fit into any better than where they have been placed.”
Ex-coaches long in the tooth remember the years Parker and Payson were members of the A West and played each other every season.
Daylong trips to Parker and the return to Payson tested the resolve of athletes, drivers and coaches alike.
“We tried to avoid going there,” Pirch said. “If we did, we went on a Saturday and left early in the morning and came back about dark-thirty.”
Another matter to be considered is the searing desert heat in Parker, River Valley and the Valley area schools.
Even in fall, temperatures at kickoff time can exceed 100 degrees.
In 1987, the Longhorn football team traveled to Parker where they played in temperatures that teetered on danger levels prompting coaches to take drastic measures to protect the players.