Tough Horns Earn Trip To Kayenta

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Did the Longhorn boys' basketball team's stunning 70-63 upset of two-time defending state champion Monument Valley in last year's state tournament earn the Horns a profitable rematch against MV?

And did the Lady Longhorns' 23-5 hoop credentials play a role in highly regarded Monument Valley also asking for a girls' match-up?

Question either PHS boys' coach Randy Wilcox or girls' coach Jerry Daniels, and they'll tell you last year's successes probably played a role in MV officials lobbying Payson for clashes between the schools.

The games will be played -- for the first time -- in Kayenta tomorrow (Saturday) at 6 p.m. (girls) and 7:30 p.m. (boys).

"They (Monument Valley) wanted to buy us out. They didn't want home-and-away games, just varsity and play there," Daniels said. "I think they wanted some good competition and looked at what we did last year."

Daniels said it was his understanding that MV would be paying a lump sum -- about $700 per team and travel expenses -- for Payson to make the five-hour bus trip to Kayenta.

Wilcox said he couldn't confirm that MV went searching for the unusual, non-divisional match against Payson because of last year's accomplishments, but "it appears that way."

Monument Valley High School Athletic Director Gregory Wayne was away from the school for the holiday break and was not available for comment. Payson High Athletic Director Barry Smith was also out of town.

PHS principal Phil Gille says he believes the reason MV officials were willing to pay Payson to travel to Kayenta is "because they wanted good competition."

The games
When the Payson athletes arrive at Monument Valley High School they might be left standing in awe of one of the largest school district gyms in Arizona.

"It's huge," a MV school district spokesperson said.

The facility holds about 5,000 spectators and because Kayenta has long been a hotbed of basketball, it'll probably be packed with rambunctious fans.

At last year's state tournament game in which Payson beat Monument Valley, almost 4,000 spectators -- mostly from the reservation -- packed Northern Arizona University's Walkup Skydome.

"I guess (Saturday) we can expect more of the same," Wilcox said.

Playing reservation-style run-and gun-basketball in front of a capacity crowd of rabid fans, girls' coach Daniels said, will be a plus for his team. "We need to go play full speed -- that's what we'll have to do there."

For the boys' team, Wilcox said, the game represents a good opportunity to face state-tournament caliber competition but it is not a "must win" contest.

"After a rocky (3-8) start, we need (the game) to help us get ready for the division," he said.

Kayenta will bring a wealth of basketball tradition to the game, including girls' berths in the state championship games three of the past five years.

The MV boys were equally as successful in state warfare until the team's hold on the 3A crown was broken by Payson. One of the school's best seasons was 1993, when it finished 27-3.

The Lady Horns
After finishing 1-3 in the Holiday Hoops Tournament Dec. 21-22, Daniels gave the PHS girls' squad a break to recover from injuries that had slowed at least three front-line players.

The injury bug first struck the Horns Dec. 1 in a victory over Camp Verde when Stephanie Robertson, all-division last season, went down with a twisted ankle. "That was costly," Daniels said at the time.

Robertson was sidelined until the Payson holiday tournament. After her return, however, she wasn't her usual dashing, darting self.

Daniels said in mid-week he estimates Robertson to be about 90 percent recovered from the injury.

The Lady Horns' injury maladies continued in the River Valley Invitational Dec. 3-5 when starting forward Sidney Swartwood suffered a hip pointer and was not able to play in a 48-38 loss to Hopi.

The 5-foot-9-inch junior recovered to play in a win over Cactus Shadows, but was re-injured Dec. 9 in an 88-31 loss to Flagstaff.

Also injured in the game, sophomore Rheanna Martinez twisted her ankle and was on crutches several days before returning to play for the Holiday Hoops Tournament.

Daniels said he expects Robertson, Martinez and Swartwood to be available against Monument Valley, but possibly not in the best playing shape.

In practice sessions this week, Daniels has focused on trying to shore up the team's outside shooting, which has not been as effective as last year when seniors Molly Hunt and Erin Dahlman were available to throw up three-point bombs.

Opposing defenses have been able to collapse on the Lady Horns' forwards and stymie the offense.

Daniels said he hoped to either beef up the outside scoring or opt for a more penetrating offense featuring dribble drives to the basket and dish-offs to awaiting players.

The boys' team
Like their female counterparts, the PHS boys have suffered injuries that have inhibited the success of the team.

Senior forward Jason Carroll twisted his ankle during his first practice session and has not returned since.

"I'm not counting on him (for Monument Valley)," coach Wilcox said.

Point guard Hunter Walden, an all-division performer last year, has suffered through a slow start in his senior season. The sharpshooter was allowed a week's break after quarterbacking the Longhorns to the state football championship and has missed several early games and practices.

He returned to score a game-high 26 points in a win over Miami on Dec. 15 but injured a thigh and did not make the trip to Flagstaff two days later for the Pepsi-Cola Invitational Tournament.

Joe Sanchez, the starting point guard in Walden's early season absence, twisted his ankle in mid-November and accompanied the team to Flagstaff as a scorekeeper only.

Also in Flagstaff, Jeremy Reynolds -- one of the Horns' top offensive players this year -- was injured and didn't play in a 89-53 tournament loss to Winslow.

The onslaught of injuries has Wilcox wondering who he can call upon for the next game.

In the absence of Carroll, Walden, Sanchez and sometimes Reynolds, Jeremy Hoff has stepped up to lead the team offensively.

One of Hoff's best outings came in a 60-51 loss to Kingman in the Pepsi-Cola tournament. He paced the team with 16 points.

In another tournament game against Sinagua, he scored 12.

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