Four returning starters from a squad that finished fourth in the 1998 state tournament has the Longhorn golf team and coach Dave Bradley primed for the new campaign.
"Expectations are high. We are excited about the year and expect to do well," the coach said.
From last year's varsity squad, only Ryan Pezzelle graduated with the class of 1998. But he'll be tough to replace in the lineup, having been one of the team leaders both his junior and senior years.
The four returning varsity letter winners, among the 12 candidates who have turned out for the team, are Joey Coburn, Rayne Rohrbach, Adam Stazak and Tyson McKee.
But the foursome can't rest on last year's laurels, because another talented crew is hoping to unseat the veterans and earn a varsity berth of their own. The contenders are Cameron Omoto, Tyler Perna, Keith Stevens and Dallin McLaws.
After evaluating the candidates through early drills, Bradley says the five who are the strongest candidates for the starting positions, when the season opens March 9 on the Johnson Ranch course near Coolidge, are Coburn, Rohrback, Perna, Stazak and McKee.
However, the coach says, that could change as the season wears on, depending on which players improve the most.
Bradley expects Stevens and McLaws, both juniors, to play in some jayvee matches this year.
"With jayvee experience, they will improve and compete for varsity slots as the year goes along. They will play (some) varsity," Bradley said.
Underclassmen on the jayvee team include Jacob Lee, Logan Mileham, Jeff Higgins and Stephanie Mars.
Both varsity and jayvee team members have been honing their skills five afternoons each week on the private Chaparral Pines course in east Payson. Practicing at Chaparral, Bradley said, will be a definite plus for the Horns.
"We're on one of the top golf facilities in the state -- by playing there, we feel we can play and compete anywhere," he said.
If the Horns are to be competitive in the Central Division, they'll have to find some way of disposing of Fountain Hills and Cactus Shadows. Both finished in front of Payson in last season's state tournament and are again expected to field top teams.
On the state level, the East Division's Snowflake is projected to be one of the teams to contend for the crown.
Fountain Hills, Cactus, Snowflake and Payson won't have to wait until the state tournament on May 11 and 12 at Chaparral Pines to learn how they'll fare against one another.
The four lock horns at noon on April 7 in Payson. One of the highlights on the PHS schedule, this 18-hole tournament will draw statewide attention.
Other much-anticipated competitions for the Horn players include competing on the fabled Troon North and Eagle Mountain courses in the Valley March 29 and April 19. Another attention-grabber for the small-town boys could be playing on the Dove Valley Ranch Course April 21 against Cactus Shadows.
Like practicing at Chaparral, playing on those courses, Bradley said, is always a treat for his athletes.
The regular season wraps up April 23 and 24 at the Safford Tournament. Regional play will be held April 28.