The Longhorns have put together impressive performances the past two weeks, beating Tuba City and Fountain Hills.
A strong offense, dominant defense and great special teams play has keyed the strong start.
Payson has outscored its four opponents 127-51.
So, the defense has stood tall and has held Tuba City and Fountain Hills to one touchdown each, and a missed conversion each.
The offense is humming along lately and has produced at least three touchdowns in each win. A third TD would have turned the 19-16 loss at Eastmark into a win.
And a consistent group of starters has been key.
The Longhorns have sent the same 11 starters onto the field in all four games, although one entered the game on the Longhorns’ second offensive series one game.
It’s a consistent starting group, led up front by linemen Dayton Morris (LT), Jimmy Johnson (LG), Sal Sellis (C), Caleb Osier (LG) and Cutter Landris (RT). They’ve played well, especially over the past two weeks. All the players are adjusting to a new offensive coordinator. But Curt LeBlanc isn’t a new coach. The former PHS teacher served as a Payson High assistant football coach from 1993-98. He was the Longhorns’ offensive coordinator during the 1998 championship season before moving on to take over as head coach at Mohave Valley River Valley in 1999 and then Queen Creek in 2001.
“We have a new OC obviously this year, so we struggled right off the bat early,” head coach Bryan Burke said. “It’s a new system. You know, we struggled, everyone does with new systems.
“For us to have the same starting 11, really, all four games, on the offensive side, has been, that makes a huge difference. We get some timing together, camaraderie, and those guys are able to (play well). They battled (Sept. 16), they battled.”
Burke said the Longhorns put in the time and effort to excel against the Falcons.
“Our kids’ preparation set us apart tonight,” he said after the game. “Defensively, we weren’t out of position. We didn’t make a wrong adjustment to a formation.”
He praised his defensive backs.
“Credit to our secondary,” Burke said. “We knew they were going to come out and throw the ball a little bit, and our goal was to make them one-dimensional by shutting down the run, which I think we did. And (that) let our DBs go out and win match-ups. We challenged the DBs. This is probably the best one-two receiver combo that we’re probably going to see in the state this year between (Savion) Boone and (Jake) Barnard. They’re studs. We put our guys in position to play some man at times and we rose to the occasion. There was some scary things (laughs), and credit to them, because they got some great guys that work hard. My heart stopped a little bit when we gave Boone a kick return right in the middle of the field. That’s not what we wanted to do (laughs).”
Among others, like Connor Hatch on both sides of the ball, Burke loved what he saw from quarterback Dexter Waterman both running and passing and running back Caleb Marinelli, who has rushed for a combined 177 yards the past two weeks, with 74 more against Fountain Hills.
“Caleb ran real hard and got some real tough yards,” Burke said. “Shoot, he’s money on third-and-5 almost consistently. We got in third-and-5 situations and he’d come out with 6, come out with 6. One or two extra yards (than we needed). So he was big tonight. We challenged him and he rose to the challenge.”
The Longhorns endure a seven-hour 400-mile round-trip bus ride to Chinle to face the 0-2 Wildcats tonight.
It’s their final tune-up for five weeks of battles in the challenging 3A East Region that includes defending state champion Snowflake and traditional powers Show Low, Blue Ridge and Round Valley.
It all starts with Round Valley at Payson next Friday, Oct. 1.
Chinle opened with a 46-6 loss at home to Alchesay and fell 62-8 to Round Valley in Eagar last week.