The 1999 edition of the annual Payson Girls' Holiday Hoops Tournament tips off Monday morning in Wilson dome with a scaled-down field of 12 teams batting for top honors.
In past years, 16 teams participated in the two-day hardwood shoot-out, but this time around Lady Longhorn coach Jerry Daniels and athletic director Barry Smith agreed to accept fewer teams in order to make the event more manageable and time efficient.
Fewer schools, however, doesn't mean less competition. The field of teams participating still includes some top-notch 4A and 5A schools including Mesa Dobson, Gilbert, Apache Junction and Scottsdale Arcadia.
Representing the 3A ranks will be Globe, Santa Cruz and St. Johns. Class 2A schools include Ray and Joseph City.
Most onlookers might label one of the metropolitan Phoenix schools the tournament favorites due to the sheer size of their student bodies and the huge number of players coaches have to select from.
But longtime Northern Arizona basketball aficionados know to never overlook the St. Johns Redskins.
In the tiny capital of Apache County, basketball is a way of life and children begin playing -- usually in local Mormon church leagues -- when they are mere toddlers.
If tradition holds true, the Redskins will be in the thick of the fight when the championship game is played at 6 p.m. Dec. 21 in Wilson dome.
Payson High enters the tournament a question mark, having finished 2-2 in the River Valley Tournament Dec. 2-4.
In regular season play, the team also had its ups and downs, whipping a good Fountain Hills team 49-42 but later losing to Santa Cruz by a lopsided 16-point margin.
In the season-opener against Chino Valley, the Lady Horns appeared to be All-Americans in the early going jumping out to a 20-9 lead. But only minutes later, they squandered the lead and were fighting for their lives surviving a 67-60 thriller.
As tournament tip off approaches, fans might be excused for wondering which Payson team will show up -- the one capable of playing on even terms with most any conference school or the team that has ho-hummed it's way through some disappointing showings?
If there is a quick fix for the Lady Horns, maladies, it might lie in finding a way to provide more game experience for the younger players.
After returning from the break-even showing in River Valley, which included a disappointing loss to Bradshaw Mountain, Daniels said his team didn't have the veteran leadership to get it over the hump during crunch time.
If the Horns do have a seasoned all-around threat with the talents to score, rebound and run the floor at will, it's junior forward/center Rheanna Martinez. At River Valley, coaches voted her to the prestigious all-tournament team.
In the win over Chino Valley, Martinez was at her playing best, finishing with 15 points, 15 rebounds and five steals.
Martinez's supporting cast includes starting forward Kaitlin Wilkins who has shown rapid improvement in early season play. She turned in several good performances in River Valley and finished with eight points in the win over Fountain Hills.
Guard Jamie Peace also has drawn the starting nod on occasions, but has yet to become a scoring threat.
Others seeing plenty of playing time for the Lady Horns include a strong crew of underclassmen who will only get better as the season wears on. Among them are sophomores Brandi Waugh, Lee Ann Owens, Jennifer Plumb and Ashley Grubbs. Freshman Ashli Herrera is young, but has logged playing time.
The Lady Horns begin tournament play at noon Dec. 20 in Wilson dome against Ray. Should the Lady Horns emerge victorious, they would play again at 4:30 p.m. in the old high school gym. If the Lady Horns were to lose the opener, they would play at 3 p.m. in the dome.
Other opening round games are:
- Joseph City vs. Miami; 9 a.m., old gym
• Mesa vs. Arcadia; 9 a.m., Wilson dome
• Gilbert vs. Apache Junction; 10:30 a.m., old gym
• Globe vs. Santa Cruz; 10:30 a.m., Wilson dome
• St. Johns vs. Dobson; noon, old gym.