There was a time when the Eloy Santa Cruz football program was one of the most respected in the state producing future NFL stars like Art Malone, Benny Malone and Eddie Cade.
In 1965, a Dust Devil team fueled by Paul Ray Powell and Art Malone finished 11-0 defeating Peoria in the championship game.
Both Powell and Malone went on to star at ASU before launching their pro careers.
Powell passed on football to play professional baseball as a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Santa Cruz program continued its unbridled success well into the early 1990s, but later fell upon hard times.
The past few seasons, coach Al O’Campo has tried without much luck to restore some of the luster to the program.
Last season, the Dust Devils finished 4-6 overall and prior to that, turned in seasons with 5-6 and 6-5 records.
One of Payson’s three victories during a very forgettable 2009 season was a 42-7 win against the Eloy school.
Although PHS coach Byron Quinlan expects the Dust Devils to be much improved when Santa Cruz hosts the Longhorns this evening in Eloy, the Devils’ early season record, 1-3, doesn’t indicate much has been done to get the team back on the winning track.
The only “W” the Dust Devils have this year is a surprising 27-20 win over a Wickenburg team that was projected to be good.
Santa Cruz opened with a 27-26 loss to San Tan Foothills and after beating Wickenburg was soundly thumped by state-ranked Fountain Hills, 37-0, and Parker, 33-6.
Santa Cruz is not expected to have much of a passing attack this evening because quarterback Eric Lucio has completed only about 44 percent of his passes.
Lucio is however the rushing leader, averaging 4.37 yards per carry.
If he has a shortcoming, it’s ball security — he’s fumbled six times this season.
Defensively, linebacker Ismale Esparza, who’s averaging 9.5 tackles per game, leads the team. He also has two interceptions, two recovered fumbles and one caused fumble.
On offense, Esparza will line up at wide receiver.
The Longhorns (3-1) travel to Eloy fresh off a convincing 42-0 East Region win over the previously state third-ranked Round Valley Elks.
The only blip on Payson’s radar this year was a loss to 4A conference kingpin Mingus and the outcome of that game could have gone the other way if the Horns had done a few things differently.
Payson trailed only by 6 late in the game before the wheels came off the Longhorn wagon.
Tonight, Eloy will face perhaps the East Region’s finest ball carrier in Payson Herring.
The speedy and shifty senior tailback leads the Horns in rushing with 525 yards in 54 carries.
Much of the success of Herring can be attributed to the blocking of transfer fullback Clint Harper and an “O” line that gave indications in the win over RV that it was improving.
Harper is also a rock’em sock’em ball carrier, having bullied his way in the “A” and “B” gaps for 158 hard-earned yards.
When Herring goes to the sidelines, Quinlan simply shifts Westin Gibson from the Z-back slot to tailback and the Horns have another lethal weapon in their arsenal.
Gibson has picked up 281 yards on 24 carries, one of which went for 63 yards.
Quarterback Wade Hunsaker has a strong arm, is a good runner and appears to have all the tools to become an all-region candidate at the position. He must, however, improve his recognition skills and eliminate interceptions — he has thrown six picks in four games.
Defensively, Harper — a linebacker — leads the team with 35 tackles, 13 of them unassisted.
Fellow bandits Cade Despain, Ryan Risland, Cale Novack, Gunner Bauer, Sean Ford and sophomore Chase Walden have taken turns this seasons pummeling enemy ball carriers.
A win tonight would set the stage for next week’s clash against Snowflake in Payson. It’s a crucial East showdown, the outcome of which could determine both teams’ state playoff fate.
Then there is the rivalry issue. Snowflake dominated Payson on the gridiron for decades rendering a win over the Lobos sweet revenge for all that suffering under the dominance of the blue and white.
Although games between the Lobos and Horns began in the 1970s, the spell Snowflake held wasn’t exorcised until 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 still fans today that 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.