Playing on homecoming night in front of a stadium packed with alumni and fans, the Longhorn football team came within a whisper of snatching defeat from jaws of victory.
In the first half of play, the Horns thoroughly dominated Scottsdale Coronado, building a 20-0 lead that, at the time, seemed commanding.
But the never-say-die Dons came roaring back to score 26 points in the second half before falling 28-26.
“We came out ready to play and were executing,” said coach Jake Swartwood. “But in the second half, there were lots of penalties and mental lapses.”
If there were to be a single highlight of the game, it was two-way tackle Anselmo Vazquez enjoying a lineman’s dream.
With 11:44 to go in the first half and Payson clinging to a 7-0 lead, Vazquez scooped up a Coronado fumble and rumbled 63 yards to pay dirt which, coupled with a Dean Harpe’s extra point kick, lifted PHS out to a 14-0 cushion.
Swartwood also praised Vazquez’s efforts on the offensive line, saying his blocking helped clear the way for running backs R.J. Cox and Sam Boatman.
Cox scored Payson’s first TD on a nifty 38-yard run.
The Dons’ second half comeback was fueled by an 81-yard run in which Payson was on a stunt, or blitz, during which the linebacker missed the tackle.
All evening long, Payson’s defense had few answers for Coronado’s Anthony Hantschze who scored three TD’s — two rushing and another on a pass reception from Dons’ quarterback Dan Triplett.
Because the game was homecoming, halftime ceremonies were lengthened for the crowning of the royalty, which included king Logan Morris and queen Macy Daily.
While the win over Coronado, which once seemed a sure thing, turned into a nail-biter that kept alumni on the edge of their seats, it did keep Longhorn hopes alive of winning a seed into the Division IV state tournament when it kicks off Nov. 3.
The top 16 teams in the final power point rankings at seasons’ end on Oct. 26 will advance to the postseason.
At press time, Payson (5-4) was ranked 15th, just percentage points behind No. 14 Globe and just ahead of No. 16 Chinle.
The Horns wrap up the season Oct. 26 in PHS stadium against Globe.
A win over the Tigers could move PHS up in the standings and nail down a more advantageous seed than No. 15 or 16.
However, a loss could eliminate the Horns from the postseason, depending what other teams do in their season finales.
Globe (6-3) enters Friday’s game fresh off a 38-7 pounding of Safford.
Swartwood says his and the players’ mindset on Friday and during the practice week is that the final game is a must-win situation.