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There were so many things that could have spoiled Payson High’s season-opening football game on Friday night.
The Longhorns fumbled the ball four times, losing three of them.
They had a punt blocked, giving Wickenburg the ball at the Payson 29 on the first play of the second quarter.
They failed to score on a first-and-goal opportunity in the second quarter.
They were penalized nine times for 70 yards.
They were 0-for-4 on extra-point conversions.
They surrendered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns that could have cost them a victory against many other opponents.
And then there was the steady rain that soaked the Payson High field, as well as the large, home crowd.
So it wasn’t pretty.
But there were plenty of positives for Payson as the Longhorns sent their fans home happy with a 24-12 victory over Wickenburg.
Among the highlights for PHS was the performance by sophomore Wyatt Chapman, who ran for 170 yards. His 59-yard sprint 2:37 minutes into the contest got the Horns rolling. And senior quarterback Miguel Mendoza threw three touchdown passes as Payson built a 24-0 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
“I’d say it was a tale of two halves,” said Payson head coach Jake Swartwood. “In the first half, we came out and were pretty efficient. They stacked eight in the box for a while and they were shooting gaps and we had to figure something out to stop the bleeding in our line a little bit.
“In the second half, we had to run the ball. We had to stay with it and we had some unfortunate things (fumbles) happen. But the boys stayed together and pulled it out.”
The Horns dominated the first half, amassing 212 of their 306 yards of total offense in the first two quarters. But the Wranglers contained them after intermission and found their passing game as they tried to rally.
WHS picked up nine first downs and 150 of its 261 yards of total offense in the second half behind Charles Johnson, who completed 8 of 11 passes for 103 yards in the final two quarters. All eight completions, including a pair of touchdowns, went to Cloud Fritz.
Payson came up big defensively in crucial situations as the Wranglers were a combined 2-for-15 on third- and fourth-down conversions, including 0-for-6 when going for it on fourth down.
While the Longhorns had their troubles hanging onto the ball in the rain, the Wranglers had even more difficulty, fumbling six times and losing three of them. And Payson took advantage by scoring immediately after two of those giveaways.
Tyus Sarnowski recovered a fumble at the Wickenburg 45-yard line to end the Wranglers’ second possession, and three plays later, the senior made the visitors pay by reaching high for a Mendoza pass at the 23 and waltzing into the end zone to complete a 50-yard scoring play to make it 12-0 with 6:02 left in the first quarter.
The next turnover resulted in what proved to be the game-winning score as Johnson fumbled a snap at his own 21 and Steve Perry recovered for Payson to set up a six-play drive that gave the Horns a commanding 18-0 lead, thanks to Mendoza’s 14-yard pass to Jared Varner with 2:53 left in the second quarter.
The Wranglers tried to get on the board before the end of the half, marching from their own 34 to the Payson 10 before Johnson was stopped short on fourth down on the ninth play of the drive and time expired in the half.
The Longhorns all but ensured victory when Jesus Apodaca tackled Hunter Gaines for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from the Payson 40 to open the second half. PHS drove 58 yards in 11 plays with Mendoza hitting tight end William Youngberg for a 16-yard TD pass over the middle to make it 24-0 with 3:36 left in the third quarter.
“We played really good,” said Youngberg, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior. “We played together as a team. Everyone was just positive. We brought each other up when we messed up. We came out and fought and won.”
Wickenburg got on the board when Johnson hooked up with Fritz on a 19-yard TD pass with 10:37 remaining. Those two combined again for the Wranglers’ other score on a 3-yard pass with 2:44 to play.
But it was too little too late.
Behind Chapman, PHS rushed for 204 yards. Mendoza completed 6 of 12 passes for 102 yards and three TDs. Sarnowski caught three passes for 66 yards.
Gaines ran 11 times for 64 yards and Jake Vanderver 10 times for 56 yards to spearhead a WHS rushing game that netted 131 yards. Johnson was 14 of 22 for 130 yards and two TDs passing, with Fritz catching 10 passes for 116 yards and both scores. Fritz also returned a punt for 48 yards.
The Horns will work on improving on special teams as they prepare for their game at Page (1-0) this Friday. Dean Harpe was 0-for-2 on extra-point attempts. His first sailed wide right following the game’s first touchdown and he also missed the mark following PHS’s final score.
Chapman was stopped short on a two-point run following the second score and Mendoza, the holder, was stopped short on a run on a fake kick after the third TD.
Wickenburg beat Payson by seven points in the junior varsity game. Payson’s freshman team beat Mogollon 30-0.