If the element of surprise is a distinct advantage in high school football, the Payson Longhorns, under first-year coach Jake Swartwood, should be able to ambush opponents this season.
After all, they are overlooked underdogs that could catch teams unaware, having not been acknowledged in any of the state’s preseason football polls compiled by Arizona Sports Network, Wickenburg Sun, Max Preps and Metro Insider.
In fact, Payson is totally ignored in the Metro Insider top 12 poll, as well as the Arizona Sports Network top 15.
The Wickenburg Sun ranks Payson 15th of 16 with the comment, “With new coach, still not sure of potential.”
Maxpreps has Payson ranked 13th, just ahead of No. 14 Safford, No. 15 Coronado and No. 16 Coolidge.
Ranking Coolidge at the bottom of the poll is somewhat surprising to those who watched the Bears during their recent weeklong preseason camp in Payson.
The team had good numbers and appeared to be well stocked, especially in the backfield.
Payson’s lack of recognition in the polls is understandable mostly because the team is coming off a 4-6 season and lost some of its top players to graduation, including leading rusher Aaron Barnes and ace defender Clint Harper.
Which means Swartwood faces a huge challenge in trying to mold his first-ever varsity team into a squad that can compete in rugged Division IV against some of the finest teams in the state including Blue Ridge, Show Low, Snowflake and Seton Catholic.
In all preseason polls, defending state champion Blue Ridge is top ranked and highly favored to win yet another state crown partly due to the presence of 6-foot-3-inch, 235-pound fullback and linebacker Chans Cox who reportedly will play next year at Arizona State.
He’s been called one of the finest players to ever don a small-town high school uniform and is expected to graduate from BRHS at the end of the semester and immediately enroll at ASU.
There are those predicting Cox, as a true freshman in 2013, could contribute to the Sun Devil program.
Seton Catholic is sitting No. 2 in two of the polls partly due to the presence of star quarterback Ryan Bresnahan.
Maxpreps and Arizona Sports Network rank Snowflake, Payson’s opponent last evening in a pre-season scrimmage, No. 2. That, however, might change when word spreads that the Lobos lost starting quarterback Chase Walden to a knee injury suffered over the summer during a BYU football camp.
Last year, Walden was one of the top quarterbacks in the state and was expected to be even better this year.
Show Low — pass happy for three years under now departed quarterback Rathan Ricedorf — is ranked second in one poll and fourth in two others.
This season, the Cougars will be somewhat a mystery because Ricedorf has graduated and the team might not have the strong-armed signal caller to once again crank up its vaunted aerial game.
Florence, Winslow, Empire and River Valley are also ranked in all four of the state’s polls.
After Payson lost 27-7 last season to River Valley, then coach Byron Quinlan predicted RV would be a force to reckon with in 2012 mostly because the team appeared to be well stocked with plenty of young talent.
The Longhorns kick off the regular season Aug. 24 at PHS stadium against Chino Valley. Game time is 7 p.m.