With the season opener looming Sept. 1 at Round Valley High School in Eagar, the Longhorn boys' soccer team is turning up the intensity at practice, hoping for a successful debut in the Mountain Region.
Last year, the Horns resided in the Rim Region, which housed the two state semifinalists, Sedona and Chino Valley, but also had some lackluster teams. Payson last spring was realigned to the Mountain, which PHS coach Dave Greiner predicts will be a much tougher division from top to bottom.
"All the teams will be (contenders). Blue Ridge will be as good as usual, Show Low is tough and St. Johns is up and coming. There will be no easy games," Greiner said.
In addition to a rugged regular-season schedule, the Longhorns are entered in two tournaments -- Sept. 10-11 in Chino Valley and Oct. 1-2 in Tucson -- which Greiner said will test the conditioning and resolve of his team, because it will be playing numerous games over a short period of time.
The tournament results, however, will have no bearing on the team's bid for a berth in postseason play. The Horns will need a top-three Mountain Region finish to qualify for the first round of the state tournament, which is to be played Oct. 29 in Camp Verde. The state championship will be decided one week later, Nov. 6, also in Camp Verde.
Last fall, the Longhorns -- for the second consecutive year -- qualified for the state tournament and played into the quarterfinals before being ousted.
This season, Greiner said, the team would like to stay alive even longer into the tournament and hopefully make a bid for Payson High's first state soccer crown.
To help the team attain that goal, Greiner has opted for a strategy change.
"We will be changing our defense and use it more to set up our offense, especially on the strong side of the field," he said.
With the defense more involved in the offense, Greiner hopes the team's shooting percentage will improve over last year, when the Horns led the league in shots on goals but were not among the scoring leaders.
Early season drills to improve the scoring has met with good results.
"I think we'll have a higher percentage of goals for shots. We should be better at that," Greiner said.
In addition to tuning up the "O", the focuses of recent practices have been on conditioning and passing.
"We've worked on those two and (as a result) I think we will be a good passing team which will help us score more," the coach said.
While the 1998 team was the most successful squad in the seven-year history of the sport at Payson High, Greiner said this season's edition could be a tad better in at least one facet of the game. "A strength of this team is it is much more cohesive at this time of the year than it was (last season)," he said.
Thirty-nine student-athletes turned out for the team when drills kicked off at Rumsey Park Aug. 9. Greiner and assistant coach Roger Wholly -- one of the founders of the soccer program at PHS -- have been trying to sort out which 20 will remain on varsity and which will be assigned to the jayvee squad.
The Horns lost eight players to graduation last spring, but return a host of letter winners to form the nucleus of the new team.
Among the veterans is forward Jeremy Conner who was one of the Longhorn mainstays last season. "He's a good one," Greiner said.
Also returning are sweeper Justin Cline, left wing Kino Cohen, defenseman Mikel Garrett, midfielder Tyler Perna, forward David Shaw, midfielder Adam Stazak, utility man Keith Stevens and goalkeeper Joey Klein.
In Shaw, the Longhorns have one of the fastest players in the state, as evidenced by the youngster's outstanding sprint performances for the PHS track and field team last spring.
"Yes, David is very fast," Greiner said.
In addition to the returning veterans, Greiner and Wholly are looking at a talented group of former jayvee players to help out on the varsity level. They include T.J. Bryant, Zack McQuain and Brandon Peters.
McQuain, Greiner said, "will help us on defense and back up our goalkeeper."
Peters and Bryant are expected to contribute offensively.
Another athlete Horn fans can expect to see in the lineup quite often is Erin Dahir. The youngster did not participate in soccer last season but has returned to the Horn fold and thus far, Greiner said, "has been looking pretty good."
If there is a surprise in the Payson High lineup, it could be foreign exchange student Paul Rudnick of Germany, who the coach said has a powerful shot. "He's one of those that, when he shoots, you can hear the ball coming."
Greiner said the youngster probably doesn't have a bundle of formal playing experience but is more like the urban basketball player who hones his skills in pickup games on asphalt courts.
"I think he's probably played a lot of those type games. He has a lot of potential," the coach said.
Whether it's the returning lettermen, a player up from the jayvee team or a new-found prospect, the Longhorns appear to have the talent to make a real impact in the Mountain Region. With the season just around the corner, fans can look forward to a hotly contested campaign that Greiner and the players hope will lead to another berth in the state tournament.
"We've been there and we sure want to go back," Greiner said.
The Horns will make their first home appearance Sept. 8 at Rumsey Park. A varsity boys' game at 3 p.m. will be preceded by varsity girls at 1 p.m. and jayvee boys at 11 a.m. There is no admission charge.