A hero from the past appeared out of the sky at Friday night’s homecoming game.
State trooper Ridge Halenar, the quarterback so instrumental in Payson’s glorious 2008 season, delivered the game ball via Native Air helicopter transport as Payson High School honored its last state championship football team.
PHS recognized the unbeaten squad from 11 years ago, as the crowd cheered once again for the several 2008 players who gathered for a brief ceremony between the third and fourth quarters.
It was clear by then that this year’s team, coached by 2008 standout Bryan Burke, wouldn’t match that dominant squad’s 14-0 record, as State Route 87 rival the Fountain Hills Falcons took advantage of Payson’s sloppy play to fly away with a 51-26 victory.
The Longhorns (2-1) showed the character of a champion by rallying from a 20-0 first-quarter hole to get within 28-26. However, the poor execution that got them in trouble early continued and the Falcons scored the final 23 points to end the comeback bid.
For the second time in three games, excessive penalties sabotaged their offense and opened the door for their opponents. They withstood double-digit penalties in a 30-20 win over Page, but couldn’t overcome a combination of 14 flags and five turnovers in this one against a talented Falcons team bent on avoiding an 0-3 start.
A large crowd hoping to celebrate Payson’s first 3-0 start in four seasons in the crown jewel event of a fun homecoming week featuring bonfires, parades and dances, instead left wondering if this team’s 2-0 start shows its potential greatness or is more of a commentary on the lack of quality competition in the first two weeks.
Payson has struggled to find postseason success in the 10 seasons since the magical 2008 campaign, winning no more than six games in any year and just one playoff game in a decade. The Longhorns have missed playing November football the past two seasons.
The Falcons intercepted three Trevor Cline passes and Payson turned the ball over deep in its own territory on high snaps over the punter’s head on its first two possessions, leading to a 20-0 first-quarter lead for Fountain Hills, who turned it over twice.
Payson scored four touchdowns as Cline ran for a pair of scores and passed to Jesse Conway for two more TDs.
Payson stopped the bleeding when Cline scored on a 29-yard run late in the first quarter. And the Longhorns got back in it by scoring two touchdowns in just over two minutes late in the first half. Conway caught a 13-yard scoring strike from Cline to cut a 21-point deficit to 28-14 on a drive kept alive by Conway’s 30-yard run on a fake punt. Conway then hauled in a 64-yard bomb to make it 28-20 just 45.6 seconds before halftime on a drive set up by a Jojo Ortiz interception. Mike Dominguez’s extra-point attempt missed.
Cline ran for a 17-yard touchdown with 9:09 left in the third quarter to get Payson within 28-26. The Longhorns lined up to go for two points but a penalty pushed them back five yards and they sent out the kicking team.
The ultra-reliable Dominguez’s attempt failed again.
If that would have been Payson’s only penalty, maybe those misses hurt.
It wasn’t, so they didn’t.
The Purple and Gold wouldn’t score again.
The Falcons capitalized on several opportunities the Longhorns gave them, including a risky fake punt on fourth-and-long from the Payson 27-yard line the home team gambled on and lost. Conway, the punter, tried to complete a surprise pass but it fell incomplete with 2:59 left in the third quarter. One play and nine seconds later the visitors cashed in for a 27-yard TD that turned a shaky 34-26 lead for the Falcons into a 15-point cushion.
The Falcons added a field goal and ended the scoring on a 45-yard interception return for a TD with 35.6 seconds on the clock.
Three of Fountain Hills’ six offensive touchdowns also covered at least 40 yards.
Payson missed running back/linebacker Kyle Shepard on both sides of the ball. The senior had to sit out the game after being ejected from the previous game at Scottsdale Coronado for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
He should be back as the Longhorns look to put this one behind them in a game at winless Tucson Catalina. They have a golden opportunity to right the ship, as their next three opponents own a combined 1-8 record. But four challenging foes await over the final month, including the trio of Snowflake, Show Low and Blue Ridge that have dominated Payson the past decade.
This loss doesn’t have to define them. But the Longhorns must play much better the rest of the way to post their first winning season in four years, let alone join the 1981, 1998 and 2008 teams as state champs with players stepping out of the sky on future homecoming nights.