The good news for the Longhorns in a Division IV “State” tournament semifinal game against two-time defending state champion Blue Ridge was that Payson scored for the first time in three meetings against the Yellow Jackets.
The score was on Sam Grassel’s penalty kick.
The bad news, however, is the Jackets scored a trio of goals, winning a 3-1 thriller on Nov. 5 at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert.
The loss eliminated Payson from the tournament, but only after the Horns put on one of the most amazing showings in the history of the program.
“We more than held our own,” said coach Chris Avakian. “We knew all along they (the players) had it in them.”
Payson snuck into the tournament as the 12th and final seed pitted against No. 5 Snowflake.
Prior to the state opener, few gave the Horns a chance of winning, mostly because days earlier the Lobos had beaten the Longhorns, 3-0.
But the Horns pulled off the upset, winning a 1-0 decision thanks to a solid defense and Bubba Nielson’s goal on a deflected corner kick.
The win sent the surprising Horns into a second-round game against a No. 4 seeded Wilcox team that had received a first-round bye in the tournament.
Once again, the PHS defense thwarted each of their opponent’s scoring attempts, but the offense, while playing well, couldn’t score in regulation.
In the final minute of overtime, however, Noe Vega scored the winning goal on a header off a perfect crossing pass from Ivan Mares.
The win earned the Horns the final four berth against a heavily favored Blue Ridge team that was on a 55-game winning streak and ranked No. 1 in the nation by MaxPreps.com.
The Horns gave the vaunted Jackets one of their stiffer challenges of the season, but when the dust settled in Gilbert, the Jackets were victorious.
The following day, BR went on to beat No. 3 seeded Northland Prep 4-0 to win the Jackets’ third consecutive state championship.
While every member of the Longhorn team contributed to the team’s run to the final four, it was the defense that Avakian singled out. He cited Israul Luna, Logan Morris, Felix Cruz, Tyler Aguirre, Keith Williams and goalie Steven Tubbs as standouts.
With the season at an end, team members will gather one final time for the traditional awards ceremony. The date, time and place will be announced soon.