When we last saw the Longhorn football team in action, Jake Swartwood had wrapped up his first season as head coach, leading the team to a 6-5 record and a berth in the Division IV state tournament.
In the first round, however, the Horns — who took a No. 13 seed into the playoffs — dropped a heartbreaking 15-8 decision to No. 4 Snowflake.
That loss ended an up and down season during which the Horns were buoyed by the play of R. J. Cox, Erich Vohs, Kyle Brown, Tyus Sarnowski and Sam Boatman.
From that group, only Sarnowski returns to lead Payson this season into a reconfigured Division III, Section V that will include three teams — Blue Ridge, Show Low and Snowflake — which were fellow members with PHS in the 3A East before conferences and regions were dissolved by the Arizona Interscholastic Association three years ago.
In the new Division-Section realignment, which will be in effect from 2013 to 2015, Fountain Hills and Globe will join Section III, making it a six-team alignment.
Swartwood is excited about returning to play the White Mountain teams that once formed the “Beasts of the East” and was considered the most competitive region in Arizona small-town football.
“I love it, man,” the coach said. “Rivalries, good competition year in and year out.”
The coach understands, however, life in Section III will be filled with pitfalls. “It’s gonna be tough to make the playoffs, but we’ll be legit,” he said.
Since last season, Swartwood has coached some of his players as an assistant in track and field and also headed summer weight training and 7-on-7 passing league programs.
He, however, readily admits that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the workout turnouts, saying, “They could have been better.”
Just last week, things began looking up when about 45 prospective players participated in the Payson summer football camp that drew six teams to Payson.
During the day, Swartwood and his assistants led the team through sessions designed to condition the players and also teach them the nuances of next season’s program.
During evening 7x7 games, Swartwood had the opportunity to crank up his passing game against some of the finest “big school” teams in the state, including Mesa Red Mountain.
In a passing league game on Wednesday evening, Payson upset Red Mountain, scoring five TD’s to the Mountain Lions’ three.
Following the win, Swartwood praised quarterback Miguel Mendoza saying he turned in “as fine a passing performance as I’ve ever seen.”
The camp scrimmages also allowed the second-year coach to preview his defensive backfield and begin plugging his cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers into the playing slots in which they can help the team the best once the 2013 season kicks off next month.
Swartwood has been tightlipped about his “O” and “D” schemes for next season, saying he’s waiting to evaluate his players before any firm decisions are made.
But then again, he might not want to make public his tactics and strategies before the campaign kicks off. It’s doubtful the Longhorns have the talent to duplicate the 2008 dream season in which PHS finished 14-0 and won the 3A state championship. But Swartwood has hinted at a quiet optimism that the Horns will field a formidable team that — because of the youthful players — will improve significantly as the season unfolds.