It’s not often in high school postseason state tournament action that a lowly No. 12 seed rises up from the ashes to defeat two much higher-ranked teams and advance to the semifinals against a top-seeded and highly favored team.
But that’s exactly what happed to the Payson Longhorns in the Arizona Division IV Boys State Soccer tournament played Oct. 28 and 29 at Quail Run Complex in Mesa.
The Horns, with an 8-13 record, edged into the postseason by the slimmest of margins, scooping up the tournament’s final seed. As luck would have it, the Horns drew in the first round No. 5 Snowflake — a team that had beaten Payson 3-0 just 10 days earlier.
But just like the mythical Phoenix bird, which is a symbol for rebirth, immortality and renewal, the Horns put on a newfound display of resurrection, upsetting the highly favored Lobos 1-0.
The win propelled the Longhorns into a second-round game against the No. 4 seeded Wilcox Cowboys.
Playing at Red Mountain Complex, the determined Horns pulled off their second consecutive upset, whipping the Cowpunchers 1-0 in overtime.
Payson’s two wins turned out to be the two biggest upsets of the tournament as favored, higher-seeded teams won most every other game.
With the two “Ws,” the Horns advance to a state quarterfinal game at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 4 at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert.
There, the Horns have a shot at No. 1 seeded Blue Ridge — a team that is on a 55-game winning streak.
The last time the Yellow Jackets were defeated was three years ago in the state title game.
“They are about due for a loss,” said PHS coach Chris Avakian.
Payson and BR met twice in the regular season with the Jackets winning 3-0 and 2-0.
“I scheduled them twice because to be the best, you have to beat the best,” said Avakian. “They are an all-around talented team.”
Bubba Nielson scored the lone goal in the tournament-opening win over Snowflake on a deflected corner kick.
The single score was all the offense the Horns needed as a rock solid defense frustrated the Lobos all evening long.
Against Wilcox, the Horns offense dominated the game early on, but couldn’t score until the final minute of overtime when Noe Vega lit up the scoreboard on a header off a perfect crossing pass from Ivan Mares.
Payson High Athletic Director Gary Fishel called both Payson games “heart-pounding wins.”
Following the team’s return to Payson, Avakian praised the defense for the two state wins.
Individually on the defense, he lauded Israul Luna, Logan Morris, Felix Cruz, Tyler Aguirre, Keith Williams and goalie Steven Tubbs.
If the Horns can pull off a third consecutive upset by stinging Blue Ridge, Payson would play for the state championship against the winner of a semifinal game pitting No. 3 Northland Prep against No. 2 Desert Christian.
The finale for the gold will be played 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5 at Campo Verde H.S.