With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Payson High School boys' varsity hoop squad resembles a M.A.S.H. unit more than it does a basketball team vying for a playoff berth.
After watching his troops lose to Fountain Hills 70-55 Friday in the Wilson Dome, then rebound to whip Arizona Boys Ranch the following evening 68-63 in Queen Creek, PHS coach Randy Wilcox sat down and scribbled a list of his sick and injured.
On it were Hunter Walden (knee), Marc Bennett (broken leg), Joe Sanchez (ankle), and Kaare Wagner (broken finger).
Slowed by flu but playing were Ryan Lorentz, Jeremy Reynolds, Jason Carroll, Andrew Eastson and David Shaw.
The list baffled Wilcox. "This is the time of year when we are supposed to be peaking, and we're about as sick and injured as a team can be," he said. The results of the two weekend games were more evidence of how beat-up the Longhorns are. The first time Payson played Fountain Hills, on Jan. 8, the Horns won 82-79. In Friday's encounter, Fountain won by 15.
In the original regular season clash with Arizona Boys Ranch Jan. 12, a healthy Payson team won 82-30. On Saturday, the Horns struggled to beat the Spartans by five.
"All we can do is hope we get better," Wilcox said.
In an 87-84 loss to the Globe Tigers on Jan. 26, the Horns absorbed their third heart-wrenching defeat in the course of only seven days.
The Horns' streak began Jan. 19 with an 88-86 overtime loss to Coolidge and continued four days later with a 57-56 loss to Cactus Shadows.
In all three games, Wilcox said, the Longhorns were in a position to win and allow themselves a better seed into the divisional tournament to be played Feb. 12-13 at Arizona Boys Ranch.
In the loss to Globe, the Horns were playing without the services of starting point guard Hunter Walden, who earlier injured a knee and could be lost for the season.
Wilcox said he is not optimistic that Walden, the team's leading scorer and an all-division performer last year, will return in time for any post-season play.
Without Walden, Jeremy Hoff took up the scoring slack for the Horns, recording a team- and season-high 32 points.
Hoff's shooting hand wasn't particularly hot in the first half, when he scored only nine points and the Horns trailed 48-41. The hot hands for the Horns were Jeremy Reynolds and Josh McRae. Reynolds cashed in on four three-pointers and McRae was the team's leading scorer with 16 points.
However, Hoff heated up in the third quarter with six points and three of three free-throw shooting.
The final quarter turned out to be a Hoff free-throw exhibition as the senior made good on eight of 12 charity tosses. He finished 11 of 15 from the line, hit one three-point bomb and had nine field goals.
McRae tallied 27 points and Reynolds had 20.
The trio, however, were about the only Payson players to be involved in the offense. Ryan Lorentz (three points) and Chad Deschaff (two) were the only others to score.
Conversely, the well-rounded Globe attack featured four players in double figures. Ten of the 12 players on the roster scored points.
The Horns will wrap up regular season play in a pair of games this week. Santa Cruz visits today (Tuesday) for a 7 p.m. shootout in the Wilson Dome.
On Friday, the Horns' campaign ends with a trip to Coolidge for another 7 p.m. tip-off.
The first round of the divisional tournament will be played Feb. 9 at the home site of the top four regular season finishers. If the team finishes lower than fourth, they'll be in the inauspicious position of having to travel to the higher seed's home gym.
A loss in the first round would eliminate the Longhorns from further postseason play. A win would propel them into the Central tournament quarterfinals Feb. 12 and 13 at Arizona Boys Ranch in Queen Creek.