Optimism is the name of the hoop game in the Lady Longhorn basketball camp, where preseason practices have been under way for the past three weeks.
Among those eagerly anticipating the season opener Nov. 23 against Chino Valley is head coach Jerry Daniels.
"I'm looking forward to a great year," he said. "The girls have good attitudes and work ethics, and the practices have been going great."
With a team goal of finishing either first or second in the East division in order to earn an advantageous seed into the state tournament, the coaching staff will look to a pair of seasoned veterans to lead the Horn charge.
For the past two seasons, senior Sidney Swartwood and junior Rheanna Martinez have been an integral part of the foundation of the Lady Longhorn hoop program.
With the graduation last spring of 1999 stalwarts Elizabeth Gille and Stephanie Robertson, Swartwood and Martinez must shoulder an even greater team leadership role than they did last year.
"I'm hoping the experience of Sid and Rhea will settle the young kids down so they don't make a lot of young mistakes," Daniels said.
In addition to becoming on the court coaches, Martinez and Swartwood will be called upon to play important roles in Lady Horn game plans.
"Rheanna will probably be our leading scorer and rebounder; Sid is our best defensive player," Daniels said.
Other veterans on the team include senior Jamie Peace and junior Kaitlin Wilkins who both were reserves last year.
With only four veterans on the team, Daniels and assistant coach Craig Swartwood say they are hoping a strong crew of four sophomores and one freshman step up to fill the varsity void.
Sophomores Jennifer Plumb and Brandi Waugh saw considerable action last season and are expected to contribute even more this year.
LeeAnn Owens and Mackenzie Herrera also are sophomores, but neither had extensive varsity play in 1999. Both, however, picked up double duty starting on both the freshmen and jayvee teams.
Coaches predict the foursome of talented sophomores is the key to the Lady Horn's future for at least three years to come.
The final ingredient in the Longhorn personnel mix is freshman Ashli Herrera whose only playing experience is in town youth recreation leagues and on the seventh- and eighth-grade squads at Rim Country Middle School. The youngster, however, has impressed the coaching staff enough in pre-season drills and summer league play to earn a varsity roster spot.
There's little doubt the sophomores and freshmen are talented. But only playing time and the leadership contributions dealt out by Swartwood and Martinez will reveal if the five can stand up to the rigors of play in the rugged East.
The beasts of the East
In preseason prognostications, Daniels tabbed the Lobos as the team to beat, but sees other title contenders.
"Snowflake is favored, but I expect stiff competition from Round Valley and Holbrook," he said.
One lofty opponent the Lady Horns won't have to face in regular season divisional warfare is coach Don Petronvich's Winslow Bulldogs. The maroon-and-white squad was moved from the East to the North division in last year's realignment of the 3A conference.
If Winslow had remained in the East, the Dogs -- which have been a perennial powerhouse in the state -- would undoubtedly be the division favorite.
Even without Winslow, life in the East will be more challenging for the Horns than it was last season when Payson was a member of the Central.
"The East is a tougher division. The competition will be greater than the Central," Daniels said. "How well we do will depend on whether the other teams are rebuilding or not."
Outside the East, Daniels expects Monument Valley and Tuba City to also field strong teams.
Fans can expect the Lady Horns to show some new wrinkles in their offensive and defensive schemes.
Last year, the team used a double low-post set on offense with Martinez and Robertson manning the blocks.
This season, Daniels said, "We are going to more motion, with only a single post against man-to-man (defenses)."
The fast-break running game has been an important part of the Horn "O" since Daniels took over and the team will once again run when the opportunity presents itself.
On defense, the Horns can turn to a myriad of options including a 1-2-1-1 full-court zone press, a 1-3-1 half-court trap and several combinations of man-to-man and zone in the half-court defense.
Daniels has always chosen to mix up his defenses and this season should be no exception.
In addition to showcasing fresh game philosophy, the Lady Horn hoop program will sport a new coach -- PHS alumnus Molly Hunt -- who will take over the freshman program. A former PHS standout in softball and basketball, Hunt starred for Daniels' teams in 1996 and 1997.
Also a former Lady Horn basketball star, Ellie Hardt will assume the reins of the jayvee program replacing Krystal Garvin who stepped down from coaching. Last season, Hardt headed the freshman team.
Other changes fans might notice during the early stages of the season will take place at the Third Annual Holiday Hoops Tournament, Dec. 20 and 21 in Wilson dome.
The field has been cut down to 12 teams from the 16 which participated the last two years. The reduction was needed to make the fray more manageable.
Set to participate this year are Mesa Dobson, St. Johns, Mesa, Miami, Globe, Gilbert, Apache Junction, Ray Santa Cruz and Scottsdale Arcadia.
With three Class 5A schools -- Dobson, Mesa and Gilbert -- in the mix, the tournament will feature top-notch hoop competition the Lady Horns wouldn't otherwise see during the course of the regular season.