Armed with the fighting spirit of a junkyard dog, the Longhorn boys soccer team is bound for the Division IV tournament with sights set on winning the program’s first outright state title.
Those who have seen the Horns play this year, including PHS athletic director Don Heizer, harbor few doubts the squad has both the mental and physical toughness to accomplish the post-season goal.
After watching the team earlier this season battle to a 0-0 tie against state top-ranked Blue Ridge, Heizer — a former wrestling and football coach — said, “That match was more physical than some football games I’ve seen.”
The team’s roughneck, but clean, style of play can be attributed to the presence of several seasoned veterans who grew up playing soccer — international style.
Noe Vega is among the standouts who have paced the Horns in their rockem’, sockem’ mentality.
On Oct.13 in a 1-0 upset of previously undefeated Chino Valley, Vega was at his best, scoring the only goal of the game and successfully deflecting a Cougar shot that would have tied the game. At the time of Vega’s deflection, the Horns were playing without a goalie.
Following the gutsy showing, Coach Chris Avakian praised Vega, saying, “He was definitely the player of the game.”
Other players have also stepped up time and again.
On Sept. 13, in a 2-2 tie against a Blue Ridge team that was then on a state record 57-match winning streak, defenders Logan Morris, Felix Cruz and Trevor Clawson continually frustrated Jacket players not accustom to being jostled and hustled.
Also, goalie Steven Tubbs, who gave up football for soccer, turned in a big-time performance that successfully fended off numerous Jacket shots.
Forward Guillermo Lopez, a four-year varsity starter, has been rock solid offensively.
Last year, coaches voted Lopez to the all-section and all-division teams and he should be a lock for even more honors at the conclusion of this season.
Payson has matched heralded Blue Ridge, Avakian contends, because the Longhorns have physically equaled the Jacket standouts.
“We have the athletes,” he said. “Ours are as good as theirs.”
While the Arizona Inter-scholastic Association will not release the final power point standings and tournament seedings until Oct. 23, the Longhorns — with their 7-3-3 record — could advance as high as No. 5.
That seed would open pursuit of a state crown Oct. 25 at a still undetermined site against D-IV’s No. 12 seed, which could be Camp Verde, St. Gregory College preparatory or possibly Round Valley.
The state tournament wraps up with the gold medal finals on Nov. 3 at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert.