After watching the Lady Longhorns' three leading scorers succumb to injuries, and several other players relegated to the sidelines with bumps, bruises and illnesses, coach Jerry Daniels says he can only hope all return to form for the Second Annual Payson Holiday Hoops Tournament.
The 14-team tournament will tip off in Wilson dome at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 21 when Payson hosts Phoenix North High School.
Tournament play continues in the dome until the championship finale at 5 p.m. Dec. 22.
If the Horns are to battle on even terms in the field that includes three Class 5A schools -- Mesa Dobson, Gilbert and North -- the team will need the talented trio of Stephanie Robertson, Sidney Swartwood and Rheanna Martinez in the line-up.
All have been limited in games and practices due to injuries.
Robertson, a senior who was voted All-Central Division last season, has been sidelined ever since twisting her ankle in a 43-35 win over Camp Verde Dec. 1.
"It was a costly victory," Daniels said.
But that was only the beginning of the malady of injuries to strike the Horns.
In the River Valley Invitational Tournament Dec. 5 in Needles, Calif., junior Sidney Swartwood, a two-year starter, suffered a hip injury and was not able to participate in a 48-38 loss to Hopi High School.
After scoring 12 points in a 55-38 Central Division win over Cactus Shadows Dec. 8, Swartwood re-injured her hip and could not play the following evening in Flagstaff.
The Horns injury toll continued to mount in the fourth quarter of the 88-31 loss to Flagstaff when Martinez, who had scored a team-leading 12 points, twisted her ankle.
The loss of the sophomore standout meant the severely depleted PHS lineup was without its top three all-around players.
The availability of the trio for the upcoming tournament -- and at least three others who have been slightly injured or ill -- remains in question.
Early this week, Swartwood said she was feeling fine.
"I'll be there (at the tournament)," she said. "I'm OK."
Martinez and Robertson remain on crutches, but Daniels is optimistic they would be available.
"I believe they could be there (for the tournament)," he said.
After opening against a very-tough Phoenix North team, the Horns could find themselves out of the frying pan and into the fire.
A loss to North would pit the Horns against the winner of the Dobson vs. Ganado opening round contest.
Dobson -- the favorite -- is a metropolitian high school with 3,000 plus students in only three grades. The Mustangs won the tournament championship last year by beating Payson in the finale. The defeat was one of only four the Central Division champion Lady Horns suffered during the season.
Daniels, who is also the tournament director, said the defending champion Mustangs will return to the Rim country holiday fray with another potent, talented team.
The Dobson vs. Payson encounter, if it comes about, would be played at 2:30 p.m.
A win over North in the opener would throw the Horns in a 3:30 p.m. game against the winner of Ray vs. Greyhills.
As a run and gun reservation team, Greyhills would provide the Horns a strong test similar to the one Hopi came up with during the 10-point loss at the River Valley Tournament.
No matter what the scenario, the Horns have a tough row to hoe during the opening two rounds of the tournament.
But that's no one's fault, Daniels said. "I made up the tournament (bracketing)."
In addition to the 5A schools and Class 4A Apache Junction, the small community of St. Johns -- the Apache Country capitol -- might provide another tournament championship contender.
"They will be a tough for anyone to beat," Daniels predicts.
The Redskins, who participate in the rugged 3A East division, are a perennial powerhouse in both boys and girls basketball.
That's because the sport is a way of life in the predominately LDS community where high school coaching legend Verl Heap first helped lead the team to prominence.
One of the reasons for the Lady Skins' success this season has been the play of Jodi Smith.
Over 6 feet tall, she's one of the most dominating players in the 3A conference. In the Rim country, however, Smith might be best known for her exploits in track and field where she's battled Robertson in the heptathlon.
Robertson, a national class heptathlete, has out-performed her rival in the multi-events but in single competitions, Smith has usually emerged victorious.
Last spring, she was Arizona's top female high jumper with a leap of 5 feet, 9 inches. She's also an outstanding hurdler, long jumper and triple jumper.
On the hardwood, Smith calls upon her tremendous track and field athletic abilities to help make St. Johns a legitimate state championship contender.
On toe-to-toe matches between Robertson and Smith -- should Robertson return to form --would be a battle of two of the best all-around athletes in Arizona.
The injuries to the Lady Horns' top-three and the play of Smith has drawn most of the early season attention,. However, several role players in the PHS line-up that have made significant contributions to the Horns' hoop cause.
Jennifer Plumb, despite being only a freshman, has been a starting guard since the onset of the campaign.
In a 61-51 win over Park in the River Valley tournament, Plumb had one of her best nights scoring 12 points.
Against Hopi, she had seven and contributed five to the win over Cactus Shadows.
A decent outside shooter -- if her three-point attempts start to ring true -- she'll give the Horns the outside shooting threat lost with the graduation of Molly Hunt and Erin Dahlman last season.
Also a potential three-point threat, senior guard Elizabeth Gille tallied two long-range bombs and scored 10 points against Cactus Shadows.
In the lopsided loss to Flagstaff, she finished with 10 points and was one of the few PHS players capable of scoring.
Jenny Randall, Sara Siverson, Kaitlan Wilkins, Nikki Scholl, Jamie Peace, Allison Crabtree and Laci Tomerlin have stepped up at different times throughout the early season to fill the void created by the loss of the injured and ill players.