They battled the best teams in the state all season and came up just short.
And they did so with class.
It’s something first-year head coach Billy Spalding preached to his Payson High boys soccer players. He’s the pastor at Mountain Bible Church. His assistant coach, Alfonso Rodriguez, is a pastor at Fusion.
It was the most important thing he wanted from the Longhorns.
Win or lose with class and respect for your opponent.
The Longhorns earned the eighth and final spot in this year’s AIA 2A State Championship. They played at #1 Chino Valley in the first round/quarterfinals on Oct. 26.
And they competed well for 78 minutes. But with the score 1-0 in the Cougars’ favor, a physical game turned ugly in the final two minutes as two Longhorns lost their composure and received red cards and ejections for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Our (player) initiated that,” Spalding said. “He kind of rammed his shoulder into a guy and then that guy pushed him back.
“At that time, one of our players grabbed (our guy) to keep him from escalating things.”
But another Longhorn did just that. The brother of the Longhorn who used his shoulder to make contact with the Cougar, injected himself into the situation.
“His brother came rushing (in) full speed and just blindsided the kid right in the back and just knocked him flat,” Spalding said.
“By that time, it was kind of broken up and everybody was pulling everybody away from each other.”
A social media post said Payson fans ran onto the field, although we haven’t been able to confirm that, yet.
As for the Longhorns, Spalding said it was just the two players involved.
“It was really only those two boys that misbehaved,” he said.
He said it was more than just a physical game that led to the unacceptable behavior by the brothers.
“They said that the player had made some derogatory comments toward them,” Spalding said.
Overshadows great effort
Spalding was hoping to talk about how competitive his team was against the unbeaten Cougars but there was no avoiding addressing the way the game ended.
“It’s very unfortunate,” he said. “We played well. It was a good game. They got a goal, we didn’t. We played the game really well.”
The only goal of the game came when the ball deflected off another player and crossed the goal line about 10 minutes into the 40-minute second half.
“We were in good shape,” Spalding said. “We were getting shots on goal and they weren’t getting good shots on goal.”
Just to be clear, Spalding said Chino Valley had 10 fouls in the game and Payson five.
“(Chino Valley was) the one that was fouling the most,” he said. “We were playing a good hard game.”
While not condoning the behavior by the two Longhorns, Spalding focused in on one issue that both coaches and players had trouble with.
“We were becoming increasingly frustrated by what we felt were bad calls,” the coach said. “That certainly contributed to the outburst at the end, but it doesn’t excuse it.”
Bad behavior not tolerated
Spalding said both coaches tried to make it clear from day one this season that unsportsmanlike behavior wouldn’t be tolerated.
“Our goal with this team is to win games but more importantly it is to help these young men become strong young men of character,” Spalding said before the start of the season. “We’re willing to lose games to not reward bad behavior. We are not going to sacrifice good sportsmanship or respect for a win.
“Our top priority is to develop good behavior with these guys.”
Before the game, the coaches talked to the player who wound up retaliating about the importance of keeping his composure.
“We pulled (him) aside before the game and told him “(You) have a hard time controlling (your) emotions and you cannot do anything in this game to damage the team,” Spalding said.
But, now he’s answering questions about the closing minutes of the final game instead of about how the team went 9-4 and qualified for the tournament for just the second time in seven years.
“I just can’t tell you how disappointed I am to end the season on this note,” Spalding said.
“I hate for this to take away from the work of the vast majority of the team. They worked hard, showed good sportsmanship, and have been respectful. Now this is how we’re going to be remembered.”
PHS AD Ryan Scherling said the school and team are dealing with the situation.
“I have reviewed the film from our soccer match at Chino Valley on Tuesday night,” he wrote in response to an email from the Roundup asking for comment.
“The actions by two of our players were unacceptable and will be dealt with accordingly. We expect all of our programs to display the highest quality of sportsmanship, and we are discouraged that we fell short of that after a hard fought game by both teams.
“The actions of a couple individuals is not a reflection of our program, as I am proud of what we were able to accomplish this season. I sincerely apologize to the Chino Valley players, coaching staff, administration and fans for our unacceptable behavior.”
Scherling wished the Cougars good luck ahead of their semifinal game.
Cougars win it all
Chino Valley went on to beat two-time defending state champion #5 Blue Ridge in a semifinal shootout following a scoreless regulation and overtime. The Cougars then beat #3 Camp Verde 2-1 in Saturday’s championship game.
Lack of offense
The shutout was the third in four games against the strongest teams Payson faced in the regular season/state tournament. The Horns were outscored 7-1 in four games against Chino Valley, Snowflake and Camp Verde. They lost 3-0 at home against CV earlier this season and 1-0 at home against Snowflake. They lost 2-1 in overtime against Camp Verde.
So, they improved on the earlier game with the Cougars, but still couldn’t score.
“The issue is not being able to score against the strong teams,” Spalding said. “We’ve had one strong striker, Esgar Reyes, and I think he’s scored 45 goals this season. But we’re not going to get as far as we want to get relying on one guy for goals.”
The Longhorns were trying to reach the semifinals for the first time since 2014.
Payson’s lone state championship came in 2002 when the Longhorns shared the title with Sedona Red Rock. They reached the semifinals three times in four years from 2011-14, losing each time in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
Payson failed to qualify for the eight-team tournament for five consecutive years until a year ago, when the Horns lost 1-0 in the first round/quarterfinals to Blue Ridge.