A 2010 regular season that has been both interesting and out-of-the-ordinary wraps up this evening with the Show Low Cougars playing host to the Payson Longhorns in an East Region face-off.
The finales, which are being played all around the 3A conference, set the stage for the first round of the state tournament which begins Nov. 6 at the home site of the highest seed.
Regardless of what unfolds this evening in Cougar land, state second-ranked Show Low (8-1 and 3-1) is bound for the playoffs with an advantageous seed.
Payson seems a sure bet to make the postseason, but probably not clutching an automatic berth as one of the East Region’s top-three finishers.
Those will go to Blue Ridge, Show Low and Snowflake.
Payson most likely will advance via the power point route as one of the 3A Conference’s four at-large teams.
Payson (5-4 and 2-2) is currently ranked 10th in 3A power points and at first glance it does not appear there are four other non-automatic qualifiers around the conference that could knock them out of the playoffs even if the Horns fall this evening to the Cats.
The big question being asked in the White Mountains is whether the Cougars, and their embattled coach, Randy Ricedorff, can recover from last week’s gut-wrenching 36-18 loss to archrival Blue Ridge soon enough to ambush the Longhorns.
Ricedorff is taking a lot of heat around the state for approaching Blue Ridge linebacker Alex Stibbins in a post game meeting of the two teams and accusing him of cheap shots.
The incident almost ended in an altercation involving Ricedorff and Blue Ridge assistant coach Danny Hawkins.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the incident ended peacefully.
Ricedorff later apologized, but there are those around the state calling for his resignation, or at least a suspension.
Others argue he was just protecting his players.
Whatever occurs, no sanctions against the coach have been announced and he is expected to lead his team this evening against the Horns.
However, the unfortunate incident coupled with the disheartening loss to BRHS, has to take a bit of wind out of the sails of the SL gridiron ship.
PHS coach Byron Quinlan is saying his team can compete on even terms against Show Low if it executes and the boys don’t beat themselves.
“We’ve got to get back to playing disciplined football in order to be successful,” he said.
Which means quarterback Wade Hunsaker has to be at the top of his game, both on the ground and through the airways.
Hunsaker has a big-time arm, but he’s relatively new pulling the trigger offensively, and makes mistakes that all those new to the position suffer through.
Payson does have in its offensive arsenal two of the finest athletes in the East — Westin Gibson and Payson Herring.
In a 54-0 win over Alchesay Friday, Herring rushed for 136 yards on nine carries. He also returned a kickoff 90 yards for a TD.
Gibson scored three touchdowns — two of them rushing and another on a 60-yard punt return.
If Gibson and Herring can come close to duplicating those feats tonight, the Horns have a chance to pull off the upset of the 2010 season.
Also for Payson, kicker Russ Hintze must make good on all his conversion attempts and any field goals he’s called upon to boot.
Against Alchesay, he made just four of seven extra points — a mark not good enough to win a close, hard-fought game.
Punter Juan MacHado can contribute to the Payson cause with booming 40-yard punts, which could give the Horns the field position advantage.
Finally for Payson to shine vs. SLHS, the Horn defense must find a way to contain Cougar quarterback Rathan Ricedorff’s aerial circus.
He’s one of the state’s finest quarterbacks, having thrown for a state record 2,656 yards this season.
He also has tossed 35 touchdown aerials and has a QB rating (140) that makes Max Hall, Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson double over in envy.
In Blue Ridge’s win last week, Ricedorff completed 15 of 30 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted twice.
The strong-armed signal caller also has some big-time receiving targets in Josh Weeks, Jacob Ellsworth, Trevar MacArthur and Justin Nikolaus.
Weeks and Ellsworth have combined for almost 1,500 yards in receptions this season.
The Cougars won’t remind anyone of Air Coryell’s vertical offense, but they boast one of the finest passing attacks in the state.
Which means Quinlan and his staff must decide on a strategy to try and slow what Show Low does best — pass.
Since Payson has used a 43 defense most of the season, the staff must decide on man-to-man or zone coverage, or a combination of both.
If zones are used, coverage shells — cover 2, cover 3 or possibly cover 4 — must be decided upon, as well as whether to use zone blitzes and stunts.
Often having defensive linemen “stem” or shift to a different alignment just before the ball is snapped can also disrupt quarterbacks and create open rushing lanes.
That could be a PHS strategy.
The staff might also call upon a nickel package and put three cornerbacks on the field.
Of course the key to any good defense is aggressiveness and the ability to react to plays as they develop.
Which means defenders such as Clint Harper, Chase Walden, Cameron Geeske, Cade Despain, Jake Sleeper, Cale Novack, Gunner Bauer and Gibson must anchor a rock solid defensive effort that comes up with tackles for losses, causes fumbles, interceptions and quarterback sacks.
If the staff gets the “D” aligned in proven packages and the team members play to their capabilities, the underdog Longhorns have a shot at spoiling the evening for the boys from the Deuce of Clubs.
Kickoff this evening is 7 p.m.