The Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets came to town this week, looking for some revenge and a chance to prove beyond doubt that they have the best boys soccer team in the country.
Just one minor obstacle stood in the way: The Payson Longhorns, underdogs with a junkyard dog attitude.
Granted, the Longhorns had on Sept. 13 stunned the top-ranked team in the country by battling the Yellow Jackets to a 2-2 tie.
But that was a fluke. This time, the Yellow Jackets saw the overmanned Longhorns coming. The smart money would have predicted yet another crushing Yellow Jacket victory, given their celebrated coach and a 57-game winning streak.
Well, kiss your smart money goodbye.
The Longhorns fought the vaunted Yellow Jackets to a 0-0 tie, to the delight of delirious fans revved up by the Longhorn Marching Band, turning out with trumpets for its first soccer game ever.
The twin, tied dead knots on Sept. 13 in Lakeside and Oct. 2 at Rumsey Park pitted the underdog PHS Longhorns against the champion Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets, rated No. 1 in the country.
That first, longshot Longhorn tie put a screeching halt to the Yellow Jackets’ state record 57-game winning streak.
It also gave hope to all D-IV teams facing the seemingly invincible Blue Ridge, which has won three consecutive state championships and ended last season ranked No. 1 in the nation by the online database MaxPreps.
The second tie proved the Longhorn players every bit as good as a vaunted Jacket lineup publicly lauded as one of the finest teams ever assembled.
While Payson’s third-year coach Chris Avakian is taking the games as simply brief stops on the path to the postseason, the two ties provided a huge shot in the arm — for the team, the coach and the fans.
Avakian coached on even terms, maybe better, than Blue Ridge’s heralded leader Richard Breckenridge, who has led the Jackets to six state titles and in a recent statewide sports story tied for first place in a ranking of Arizona’s finest soccer coaches.
In Payson, Avakian credits the team’s spirited play in both skirmishes to a junkyard dog fighting mentality and the players’ refusal to be intimidated by BR’s lofty reputation and rugged style of play.
The second showdown, a brutal, in-your-face-affair, was played with more rock’em sock’em physicality than some varsity football games.
“When they play us, they know they are in for a dogfight,” Avakian said. “We don’t back down.”
Adding a bit of chutzpa to the game, the revved up Payson High School band played its first-ever gig at a soccer game.
On the field, the Horns saddled up and rode a determined defensive effort and strong play from goalie Steven Tubbs to the tie.
The high octane BR offense entered the game with impressive statistics, having put up some big numbers in wins over St. Johns, 12-0; Round Valley, 8-0; Holbrook, 12-0; and Show Low, 5-0.
However, the two ties leveled the playing field in soccer statewide, breaking the Blue Ridge stranglehold on the sport.
Blue Ridge has long dominated boys soccer, winning eight state championships in the past 13 years, but this season the Longhorns stepped up to flex their collective muscle and prove the Yellow Jacket dynasty just might come crashing down.