Nine returning seniors from a strong 2020 squad makes Payson a favorite to contend for a boys soccer state championship.

But the Longhorns haven’t won a boys soccer state title since 2002 when they shared the 1A-3A crown with Sedona Red Rock.

Payson has struggled to find state tournament success. They haven’t returned to the title game in the 18 seasons since 2002 and have only reached the semifinals three times in that period — 2011, 2012 and 2014.

The Longhorns were the No. 7 seed in last year’s tournament when they lost to No. 1 Blue Ridge 1-0 in the first round/quarterfinals. It was Blue Ridge’s closest game of the tournament. The Yellow Jackets went on to beat Chino Valley in the title game for the second consecutive season.

That Payson team had just two seniors, only one of them a starter.

Players returning to this year’s team carry that memory with them. They knew had they gotten past the Yellow Jackets they might have gone on to win it all.

This year, they’re determined to finish the job.

They started that quest with a new head coach in Mountain Bible Church Pastor Billy Spalding. This marks Spalding’s first season as a varsity head coach after several years coaching at lower grade levels and club ball.

Joining him is new assistant coach Alfonso Rodriguez, the pastor at Fusion.

They want to see the Longhorns realize their full potential on the soccer field. But they also want them to do it the right way.

“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.

He said the character issue must come first.

“We want to help these young men build strong character that will help them the rest of their lives. We’re not interested in winning at all cost.”

The Longhorns got off to a strong start in their bid for glory with an 8-2 triumph over Holbrook at Rumsey Park on Sept. 1.

Esgar Reyes scored five of the goals, Braden Tenney two and Joey Clark one.

Reyes was voted first team all-state and 2A Central Offensive Player of the Year as a junior.

“Esgar obviously is just a phenomenal forward,” Spalding said. “His vision of the field is incredible and footwork is amazing. He’s just a really good kid and a hard worker.”

Reyes is one of Payson’s three captains along with classmates Mike Dominguez and Easton Redford.

Dominguez earned First Team All-2A Central honors and second-team all-state accolades for his play on defense as a junior. He’s also an all-region kicker on the football team.

“Mike is a defensive player but the great thing about Mike is he’s kind of a wing and will bring the ball all the way forward at times and pass the ball perfectly to the forward,” Spalding said.

Redford was voted second-team all-region as year ago. “Easton is a great player but what he brings to the team is more than his athletic ability,” Spalding said. “He is a leader and he is just great at keeping it fun.”

Also returning are senior starters Francisco Lopez (MF), Jacob Roberts (D), Trent Winton (LF) and Adrian Zeferino (D).

The returning juniors include Ismael Urquiza (MF), Juan Hernandez (MF) and Braden Tenney and Joel VanZile.

Urquiza earned first team all-region accolades as a sophomore. “He’s a great player with a great eye for solid passes,” his coach said.

Tenney is moving from defense to forward this year. “He’s playing really well,” Spalding said. “He’s aggressive on goal.”

Hernandez is back at midfielder and playing well. VanZile is a midfielder with a cannon for a foot who can also play goalkeeper if needed.

Also back is sophomore Ben Menghini (D), who was honorable mention all-region as a freshman.

Sophomore goalkeeper Jesus Hernandez earned second team all-region recognition as a freshman.

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