In early season hardwood wars, the Longhorn boys' team struggled for victories due to a malady of problems including injuries and a lengthy football season that eliminated preseason training for many of the veteran players.
The good news along the dire straits for coach Randy Wilcox and his charges was that those losses were in tournaments and to non-Central Division opponents. The defeats do not count in the team's quest to earn the division championship or to advance to the state tournament with a top-three Central finish.
Since the Central campaign opened in earnest Jan. 5, the Longhorns have been on a turn-around building a 4-1 divisional record. Currently the team -- on a four-game winning streak -- is posed for a run at league-leading Cactus Shadows.
Cactus whipped Payson 88-73 in the Central opener Dec. 8 but that Horn team bears little resemblance to the one Payson now fields.
In that loss, leading scorer Hunter Walden and Jason Carroll did not play. Former footballers Marc Bennett, Ryan Lorentz and Jeremy Hoff were only just rounding into basketball playing shape.
When Cactus and Payson meet in their second match of the season at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 in Wilson Dome, the Horns will probably sport a more potent look in a contest that could be for a share of the Central division lead.
However, before Wilcox and the Payson players can look ahead to a revenge match with Cactus, they'll need to contend with the formidable Coolidge Bears at 7 p.m. today, Tuesday, in Wilson Dome. A victory, Wilcox said, is crucial to Longhorn hopes for a division crown.
A pair of wins
The Horns picked up their third and fourth Central triumphs with an 87-53 pounding of Santa Cruz Jan. 15 in Eloy and a 82-30 spanking of Arizona Boys Ranch two days earlier in Wilson Dome.
In whipping Santa Cruz, the Horns jumped out to a 20-16 lead thanks to eight first-quarter points from both Jeremy Hoff and Josh McRae.
However, the Longhorn "O" quickly cooled off and Santa Cruz steamed back to take a 39-36 halftime lead. The turning point of the shoot-out turned out to be the third stanza when the Horns outscored SC 27-12 and never looked back. Senior point guard Hunter Walden fueled the Horn's third-quarter onslaught with 10 points. He finished with 26 to lead the team offensively.
McRae also had the hot hand scoring 21 points. Other scoring leaders included Jeremy Reynolds (12), Hoff (11), Jason Carroll (6) and Chad Deschaf (6).
In any previous prep basketball campaign, the Horns would have been in the fight of their life battling Arizona Boys Ranch. But this season the once-mighty Spartans are only a skeleton of their former selves due to legal problems and a dwindling enrollment that has robbed the school of most of its athletes.
ABR's slide into oblivion continued in the 52-point loss to the Horns prompting fans and players alike to wonder what is to become of the ABR sports programs.
Never was the ineptitude of the Spartans more evident than it was late in the game when an obviously untested player was inbounding the ball after a Payson basket. The player apparently didn't know if the rules required the referee to touch the ball before throwing it in and stood alone at the end of the court waiting for a rules interpretation.
"That kind of told it all (about the Spartan decline)," Wilcox said.
Scoring at will, Walden tallied 28 points ,all of which came in the first and third quarters.
"We did all we could to keep the score (down)," Wilcox said.
Scoring leaders included McRae (12), Hoff (12), Andrew Easton (eight), Joe Sanchez (six) and Deschaf (six).