If PHS coach Jake Swartwood was looking for a bit of motivation to fire up his players for tonight’s crucial clash against Show Low, he might want to show them films of the 2000 season-ending Cougars vs. Longhorn battle.
It was a game for the ages that continues to stir great memories in those who played or watched from the stands.
In fact, there are those who argue if the current team can muster the same will and grit that former group showed, Payson will be celebrating a victory this evening.
Show Low entered the 2000 game a huge favorite partly due to the presence of all-everything quarterback Matt Belshe — who at the time had accepted a football scholarship to the University of Arizona — and 275-pound prep All-American lineman Scott Croft.
But as good as Show Low was, it was a gritty effort from an undersized but determined band of Longhorn players that fueled Payson’s 10-0 win over the defending 3A champions. The Saturday morning following the win, the triumph was being hailed as the biggest upset in state prep football.
Looking back, we remember the game was played on a Payson High turf that more resembled Taylor Pool than a playing field.
The torrential weather conditions had fans huddling under blankets to stay warm and dry. But the Big Surf-type playing field was just what coach Mike Wheelis ordered for a team that had experienced more than its fair share of ups and downs in a 4-4 season.
“The kids want to go out and play in that slop,” he murmured prior to kickoff.
Throughout the practice week, Payson players understood they were huge underdogs but when the stadium lights turned on, they stormed on to the field with all the determination and fight of a junkyard dog.
All game long, the Horn defense was a high school replica of the ’85 Bears limiting a Cougars’ offense that had been spewing out 300-yard games to a paltry 75 yards.
Most importantly, the Horns harassed Belshe into a 0-12 passing night, during which he was also intercepted twice.
While the PHS defense was shutting down the Cougar offense, Payson’s offense churned out just enough, 140 yards, for the win.
Individually, a bevy of Payson players will long be recalled for their fearless efforts against a team that outmanned them at almost every position.
Inside linebackers Reed Hatch and Cory McRae joined forces to contain the Cougar running game and tackle Jeremy Greenburg and fullback Steve Williams unleashed devastating blocks that allowed running back Levi Armstrong to rush for 76 yards and score the TD Payson needed for the win.
Cool, calm and collected Dusty Brockett booted the conversion kick and a field goal.
Defensive ends Austin Wilbanks and O.J. Siebert were everywhere shutting down Show Low’s bootlegs that had been the bread and butter of the Cougar offense.
Hard-nosed quarterback Ky Bradley refused to be intimidated, sticking his facemask into SL defenders as he skillfully engineered the option attack.
Most impressively, is the teenagers played the game knowing they would not be advancing to the state tournament mostly because they had dropped a gut-wrenching 12-7 decision to Snowflake earlier in the year.
Minutes later jubilant fans, boosters and parents stormed on to the field to congratulate the teens.
After exchanging handshakes, hugs with the happy teens, the crowd exited PHS field pumped full of purple pride and singing the praises of a band of brothers who refused to be denied. One booster, a PHS alum and former Horn football player, indicated he was going home to celebrate a win over a rival that had long frustrated him.
Finally, he said, “The wicked witch of the White Mountains is ding dong dead.”