FOUNTAIN HILLS – Things have changed.
Optimism abounded after Payson’s football team started the season 2-0.
But three losses in four weeks with a challenging schedule ahead have tempered expectations.
The Horns entered Friday’s game at Fountain Hills hoping to rebound from a disastrous second half in a 33-19 homecoming loss against St. Johns. A road win against the Falcons would have gone a long way toward soothing those painful memories. It also would have been a major boost in the power rankings that determine the state tournament field.
However, with senior starting quarterback Miguel Mendoza sidelined with a knee injury suffered last week, the Longhorns turned the offense over to sophomore Brian Skinner.
Their leader’s absence didn’t help matters, but the Longhorns weren’t likely to win the game even if he had been able to play. That’s because Mendoza doesn’t play defense. And Payson had no answers for what the Falcons were doing offensively.
Nick Montalbano amassed 227 yards of total offense and scored five of his
team’s seven touchdowns as Fountain Hills scored 41 unanswered points to break a 14-14 tie and roll to a 55-14 win in front of a large and enthusiastic homecoming crowd.
It’s the most points Payson has allowed since Chandler Seton Catholic beat the Longhorns 56-6 on Sept. 9, 2005.
The Falcons (4-2) walked off the field feeling upbeat. The Longhorns, meanwhile, fell to 3-3 with thoughts of a possible state tournament berth fading quickly as they boarded the bus searching for answers.
“The boys understand that we’re playing for pride,” said head coach Jake Swartwood. “The playoff picture does not look real great for us at this point.
“We would need to win out. And looking at the fact that the rest of our schedule is pretty difficult, that’s going to be a task that I’m not sure a lot of people in the state could do. But we’re going to give it our damnedest and we’re going to try to right the ship.”
PHS appeared capable of competing with Fountain Hills when Wyatt Chapman raced around the left end for a 60-yard touchdown to give the Longhorns a 7-0 lead and cap a six-play, 80-yard opening possession just 2:58 into the game.
Fountain Hills scored a pair of TDs in a 2:04 span to go ahead, but the visitors fought back to tie it 14-14 on a 5-yard scoring pass from Skinner to Tyus Sarnowski with 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
But there wasn’t much more to cheer about for the small group of PHS supporters who made the 70-mile trip.
Montalbano ran 18 times for 127 yards and three TDs and caught three passes for 100 yards and two scores from Luke McDermott, who completed 10 of 14 passes for 111 yards and four touchdowns. Jordan Atienza had 214 all-purpose yards, catching two passes for 16 yards, including an 8-yard TD, and returning three kicks for 110 yards and three punts for 88 more yards.
Atienza’s scoring catch with five seconds remaining in the first half capped a 20-point second quarter for the Falcons that gave them a 34-14 lead at the break. Atienza’s 65-yard return of the second-half kickoff set Fountain Hills up at the Payson 20-yard line. Two plays later, McDermott connected with Sam Stoor for a 16-yard touchdown pass just 50 seconds into the third quarter.
Andreas Gromoll put the home team ahead to stay, 17-14, with a 25-yard field goal with 9:49 to play in the half. He added a 30-yard field goal 1:28 later to make the Longhorns pay for a fumbled kick return recovered by Michael Doko at the Payson 13-yard line. Gromoll was 7-for-7 kicking extra points.
PHS had three turnovers. The Falcons intercepted Skinner twice. He completed 11 of 28 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown.
Swartwood said he expects Mendoza to return for this week’s home game against Globe.
Montalbano scored on a 6-yard run with 3:31 left in the second quarter and hauled in a 20-yard TD pass from McDermott with 7:16 to play in the third quarter. He closed the scoring on a 7-yard run with 4:21 on the third-quarter clock.
Trace Langer took over at quarterback for Fountain Hills with 5:28 to play in the third quarter.
Sarnowski caught six passes for 112 yards and added 31 yards on two kick and one punt return.
Chapman ran for 87 yards on 17 carries. Skinner was sacked seven times and Chapman was brought down behind the line of scrimmage three times.
Fountain Hills amassed 361 yards of total offense, rushing 35 times for 150 yards behind Montalbano. Payson was limited to 65 yards on 31 rushes and 232 yards from scrimmage. Payson punted eight times averaging 29.4 yards, while Gromoll averaged 52 yards on two punts, one of which took a nice bounce and traveled 61 yards.
Payson was penalized eight times for 60 yards and FH seven times for 60 yards.
Swartwood said, while injuries are hurting his squad, he won’t use it as an excuse for the situation the Longhorns find themselves in.
“I’ve got lots of guys out there who are playing with injuries and stuff, but it’s not an excuse for the loss,” he said. “The loss pretty much resides on my shoulders. I’ve got to prepare the boys better to win games. And at this point, we’re not there.”
Fountain Hills entered the game No. 17 and Payson No. 18 in the Division IV power rankings. The Falcons were coming off a 14-12 win at Wickenburg against a Wranglers team Payson beat 24-12 in the season-opener at Payson. But Fountain Hills played much better against the Horns than it did seven days earlier.
Payson entertains the 2-4 Tigers at 7 p.m. Friday before finishing at 5-1 Snowflake, at home against 5-1 Blue Ridge and at 4-2 Show Low.