Don’t look now, but Payson could just make the state football tournament.
That didn’t seem realistic a couple of weeks ago because the 4-5 Longhorns ranked No. 16 in the Division IV power standings and faced games with the toughest teams in the division — Snowflake, Blue Ridge and Show Low.
Strangely enough, they remained at No. 16 after losing 57-20 at Snowflake. Suddenly, it started to look like they just might slip into the 16-team tournament because the rankings take into account difficulty of schedule and don’t differentiate between narrow losses and lopsided defeats. So losing to strong teams doesn’t hurt you as much as losing to weak squads.
After actually moving up to No. 15 following a 63-6 trouncing by Blue Ridge in last week’s home finale, a playoff berth now seems assured, even if the Horns lose in tonight’s 7 o’clock regular-season finale at Show Low. The Cougars, after all, enter the game No. 1 in the power rankings. That’s the same position Snowflake held before slipping to No. 3 after last week’s 40-22 loss to Show Low.
“It looks now like we will make it,” said head coach Jake Swartwood.
The Longhorns have also benefitted from beating Page, which went on to enjoy a strong season. The Sand Devils are 6-3 and stand at No. 12 in the rankings. They’ve won four consecutive games, which has helped Payson’s ranking thanks to that earlier win. Payson’s average opponent rating of 3.0093 ranks fifth in the division. That’s why they’re the only team with a losing record ranked among the top 22 teams.
“Some of the teams we beat won again,” Swartwood said. “Page has won several of their games and those points go towards us because we beat Page pretty handily.”
None of the other teams the Horns have beaten — Wickenburg (3-6, No. 23), Glendale (2-7, No. 29) or Globe (2-7, No. 28) — are having strong seasons. But Glendale did beat Phoenix North Point Prep last week, which helped PHS.
It’s possible Payson could even move up to No. 14 despite a loss at Show Low.
Rio Rico is currently No. 14 and plays Chandler Seton Catholic, which is No. 2 in the rankings. If PHS doesn’t move past that school, it’s possible the Horns could move ahead of No. 13 Monument Valley (5-4), which should win this week, but won’t earn many points because it is at No. 31 Chinle, which is 1-8. No. 12 Page (6-3) entertains No. 7 Winslow (6-3). If Page pulls off an upset, it will help Payson.
It’s possible the Longhorns could wind up in a rematch against Snowflake in the first round of the playoffs. If the Lobos, who play No. 28 Globe (2-7), remain at No. 3, they’d host the No. 14 team in the opening round of the tournament. If Payson remains at No. 15, they’d travel to take on Seton if the defending state champions remain No. 2.
Swartwood said he’s thrilled for his players.
“That gives these kids something to look forward to,” he said of the playoff possibility.
The coach keeps telling his kids they can beat any team. That’s because he believes it.
“I told them (Monday), ‘I’m the walking definition of insanity because I feel every week that we can win, and I’m always going to feel that way. If I get you guys to feel the same way then we’ll all do great things together,’” Swartwood said.
He said Payson moving higher is a very real possibility. In fact, Swartwood seems to be expecting it. “I would anticipate us moving maybe up to 14, 13.”
That would put the Longhorns in position to possibly earn a rematch with Snowflake.
“We would like to play a team like Snowflake again,” the coach said. “We feel like we left some stuff out on the field and we need to prove some things to ourselves and to our fans and to our town. So we would love to play another team like that.
“Or if we had a chance to play Blue Ridge again, I think we could come in with a similar game plan and if we tackle better and we execute a little bit better, I think the game would be entirely different.”