Payson opens a new varsity football season at home against Chino Valley on Friday night.
It promises to be a more normal season than last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the first games until October and reduced the season to seven games and limited attendance.
Payson graduated 10 seniors from last year’s team, including some key players on a 2-5 team that finished 2-2 in the 3A Metro East.
COVID-19 precautions led the Arizona Interscholastic Association to move Payson into the 3A Metro East for one season to reduce travel.
But the Longhorns are back in the 3A East this fall.
Bryan Burke enters his fourth season as head coach as optimistic as he’s been thanks to a team boasting plenty of talent to go with a mixture of veterans and newcomers.
“I haven’t lost such a big senior class and felt so good about the incoming classes in a long time,” Burke said. “All the positions we lost we were able to fill in with quality guys. The kids have put in a ton of work in the offseason.”
Payson features eight returning starters on defense and four on offense.
Among the returning starters are four first team All-3A Metro East honorees in seniors Travis Christianson (LB--FB), Hunter Stanfield (DE) and juniors Dexter Waterman (DB-QB) and Mike Dominguez (K). Dominguez also made the All-3A East first team two years ago.
Christianson leads the defense and teams with Stanfield (6-2 180) two give the Longhorns a pair of veterans who can dominate.
“Travis is a beast and our leader on defense,” Burke said. “Hunter is one of the most athletic defensive linemen I’ve ever coached. He can do things a defensive lineman usually can’t do. He is a fun kid to watch.”
Other returning starters on defense are Rohan Smith (DL), Connor Hatch (CB), Kellen Mills (SS), Nick Dimbat (S/ILB), Gabe Hilgendorf (CB) and Zack Ludtke (FS).
Smith will likely start on the D-line. Burke hopes he and Christianson are two of the few two-way starters this year.
Just four starters return on offense. Smith returns for his third year as a starter on the O-line after earning All-3A Metro East Second Team honors as a junior. Junior Jimmy Johnson is back for a second year as a starter on the offensive line.
“We’ve rebuilt the line basically from scratch,” Burke said. “We will have some growing pains but I think we have the right guys there.”
Hatch (WR-CB) is a returning two-way starter. Christianson is back at fullback.
Waterman takes over at quarterback in the offense led by new coordinator Curt LeBlanc, a former Payson coach.
Waterman is also a standout in the defensive secondary but Burke hopes to limit his play on the defensive side of the ball as he concentrates on leading the offense.
“Dexter started at linebacker/safety for us last year and is going to focus on offense this year,” Burke said. “Luckily, we’re in a position depth wise where we don’t need him to start both ways. He would help us on defense.”
The coach is excited about what Waterman can do leading the offense.
“He’s smart and can diagnose the coverage,” Burke said. “He’s going to do big things.”
Hoping for fewer full-time starters
Burke always wants to limit the number of players who rarely leave the field and believes he can do that this season.
“The amount of two-way players we have when everyone is healthy, is pretty low, so we’re able to focus on one side of the ball and that will help us, especially later in the season in some of those big games. That’ll be a huge advantage for us if we can get there.”
Talent in the skill positions
Burke says the Longhorns boast plenty of talented young players in the skill positions.
“I can’t think of last time we had this competitive a group of guys,” Burke said. “We’ve got seven or eight guys that are making things difficult. They probably would have started in other years, but they may be role players this year. It’s going to be great to watch these guys. They have a great attitude about it and push each other.
“Someone makes a highlight play once or twice a week and it’s a different guy every time. I’m really excited to see what the skill players can do. We’ve got 12 seniors, a big athletic junior class and there are a lot of playmakers who are committed. They’re all in.”
“I believe we could put four wide receivers on the field and each would be able to help us out,” Burke said.
Lots of staff changes
The coaching staff has undergone quite a transformation this year. “We’ve had a huge turnover in coaches,” Burke said.
Curt LeBlanc takes over as offensive coordinator. Burke is thrilled to have the former PHS coach on staff.
“Curt is a great addition to our program,” Burke said. “Curt’s role in our program and his experience is making me better every day and our staff better every day. He’s the perfect fit for what we need right now. He’s got attention to detail he puts in across the board. He has the right mentality that our kids mesh well with.”
The only returning coach besides Burke is Miguel Galindo, who is back as JV head coach and varsity outside linebacker and wide receiver coach.
Burke takes over as defensive coordinator, with Reed Watson taking over as the defensive line and running backs coach.
Chip Rife, is the new offensive line coach. John Hatch coaches receivers and defensive backs. Duane Hubbard is helping on the defensive side with different positions and is also coaching the special teams.
Dominic Deocampo returns after a year away from the program to coach the JV receivers and defensive backs like new coach Chris Cliburn.