The Payson Longhorn football team will this season face one of the toughest three-game stretches in recent PHS gridiron history.
It all begins Oct. 18 at Snowflake and continues Oct. 25 in Payson vs. Blue Ridge and culminates Nov. 1 in Show Low.
All three opponents are tradition-rich schools top-ranked in most statewide pools with perennial juggernaut Blue Ridge sitting first, Show Low second and Snowflake fifth.
Sandwiched between the three former 3A East Region kingpins in the rankings are No. 4 River Valley and No. 3 Seton Catholic.
The Horns do not play either of those teams in the regular season, but could meet the two in the playoffs.
Blue Ridge lost a lot of talent off the 2012 team that lost 28-7 to Seton Catholic in the Division IV state championship game at Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff.
All-everything Chance Cox, who is this week drawing raves at Camp Tontozona for his play with the Arizona State University Sun Devils, could be the toughest player to replace.
But the Yellow Jackets never seem to rebuild, they just reload and the 2013 won’t be any different.
The offense will be led by 1,900-yard rusher Nolan Cook and Chris Johnson and Walker Lee on defense.
There are unconfirmed rumors in the White Mountains that BRHS soccer and basketball standout Tristan Penrod might turn out for football. At 6 feet, 5 inches and 210 pounds, he could have the size to add even more firepower to the Jacket arsenal.
Show Low returns from last season the nucleus of a team that entered the state tournament as a No. 2 seed, but lost 42-12 to Seton on the semifinals.
Show Low turned in some impressive wins in the tournament including beating Fountain Hills 42-25 and Buckeye 29-6.
Colby Maxwell, the Cougars’ returning signal caller, will once again pull the trigger in the Show Low offense. Last year he passed for more than 1,500 yards and 21 touchdowns. Most impressive was his accuracy — he threw only three interceptions.
The Cougars also return running backs Dallin Crandell and Brice Rova and wide receiver Trevor Solomon.
Crandell rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Snowflake lost to graduation all-state quarterback Chase Walden who attended PHS for two years before leaving to play for the Lobos.
Last season, Walden engineered the Lobos into the state tournament as a No. 4 seed, but Snowflake was humbled 44-0 by Blue Ridge in the semifinals.
Walden obviously was a stud and his loss coupled with the departure of several other starters will hurt the Lobo cause.
But the blue and white do return two standouts in Rick Shumway and Alec Solomon who will probably be asked this year to fill a leadership void created by graduation.
All three of the Horns’ season-ending games, plus an Oct. 11 showdown vs. Globe at PHS, are considered “section games” because the five teams are fellow section members.
Earlier games against Wickenburg (Aug. 30 at PHS), Page (Sept. 6 at Page), Parker (Sept. 13 at Parker), Glendale (Sept. 20 at PHS), St. Johns (Sept. 27 at PHS) and Fountain Hills (Oct. 4 at Fountain Hills) are considered “Freedom Games” in that PHS athletic director Don Heizer and coach Jake Swartwood were allowed to schedule them and the schools are members of other sections than the one in which Payson is aligned.