The talent flashed brightly at times this season.
Jesse Conway was the best player on the field most nights. The speedy junior’s long touchdowns brought the Payson faithful to their feet and left defenders on the ground grasping at air.
At times, senior Tanner Mansoor shut down opposing offenses, spending so much time in the backfield that the defensive tackle could have been mistaken for a running back. A very big running back.
The Longhorn defense put together a streak of 11 consecutive scoreless quarters that helped Payson reel off three consecutive victories and four wins in five games.
And there were other highlights. Despite a losing season, four Longhorns — Conway, Mansoor and juniors Porter Flake and Will Howell — earned first team all-region honors. Another six made the second team.
Unfortunately, they were outweighed by the lowlights in a 4-6 season that saw the Longhorns lose their final four games and miss the playoffs for the second straight year.
Despite having just eight seniors, the Longhorns had moments of brilliance. However, they remained woefully inconsistent when it came to anything but amassing penalties.
Moreover, they started the year with “60-65” kids in the program, according to first-year head coach Bryan Burke, but wound up with just 53. Injuries, academic ineligibility and other factors depleted their ranks.
The only returning player who started at least half the team’s games a year ago was talented senior Tim McCarthy, whose impact was diminished by injuries this year.
The low turnout forced Payson to again combine its freshman and junior varsity teams.
“We struggled this year,” Burke said of the JV team. “We won our first game and I think we lost the rest.”
But Burke hopes for better days to come.
“I think we set a good foundation,” he said. “Kids are on the right page. We see some growth in numbers and kids buying in. Our kids are going to be hungry for next year and going to come out working their butts off.”
And there’s reason for optimism about the program’s future.
“We had fewer (kids) in the upper grades, but many in the lower grades,” Burke said.
The coach shouldered the blame for what didn’t go right.
“We’ve just got to execute better and that comes from me down,” he said. “At times, we made some easy things look really complicated. It’s going to be a long offseason. I feel the kids here now want to make a difference to change the program. The key is keeping the freshmen playing their sophomore year.”
He said they had about 20-22 freshmen in the program this season. It’s crucial for the program that a large majority of those ninth-graders return to play as sophomores.
“You lose kids from their freshman to sophomore year,” Burke said. “If we keep 20, I think they’ll stay (for four years).”
He said he likes the commitment he’s seen from both his juniors and the underclassmen, who will form the core of the team as upperclassmen next year.
“The younger kids want to do all the cool stuff we do on the varsity level,” Burke said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of great leadership from our incoming senior class.”
Numbers are an issue at most small schools like Payson. Burke said Snowflake is the only 3A East team with enough kids to field a freshman team on a yearly basis. And Holbrook wound up canceling two games this year because of a lack of players.
“I don’t think they played a JV game all season,” Burke said of the Roadrunners.
The coach said he’ll begin working with kids in preparation for next season in the spring.
“The last week of April or the first week of May we’ll host a couple of camps,” he said.
“I’ll open the weight room after school (this week). We’ll have the offensive and defensive linemen do some skill work. Wintertime is the coaches’ time to prepare. Then we’ll pick it up in the spring and have a plan for our boys to be successful.”