If the newest edition of the Longhorn baseball team is to defend its state championship won last spring, the squad will have to do so without the services of five standouts who graduated with the class of 1999.
Gone from the Horn ranks are Hunter Walden, Jeremy Reynolds, Marc Bennett, Brian Cork and Jeremy McRae.
The group -- all year-long starters -- played pivotal roles in helping Payson High win its first state baseball championship by posting a school-best 23-9 record.
Finding replacements for the graduated seniors will be a daunting task for coach Teddy Pettet as he puts the team through preseason drills.
Among the candidates to take over the vacated positions are Justin Kaufmann, Joe Sanchez and O.J. Siebert.
Kaufmann and Sanchez are seniors who did not play last year, but have shown the ability to man the outfield slots, Pettet said. Kaufmann is also a capable catcher. Siebert, a junior, is ticketed as either an outfielder or pitcher.
Others battling for starting honors include outfielders Steve Williamson and Austin Wilbanks. Both were on the junior varsity last year.
Also on the varsity roster are Ky Bradley, Rob Ochoa and Waylon Pettet. Bradley and Ochoa are sophomores and Pettet a freshman.
Tentatively, the coach has penciled Bradley in as a pitcher and third baseman, Ochoa at first or catcher and Pettet-- the coach's nephew -- in the outfield and as a pitcher.
The good news on the Longhorn front is that the team does have a crew of four returning starters who are battle tested.
The veterans include Bryan Zumbro, Scotty Garduno, Cade Bradley and Nicky Brunson.
Zumbro was winning pitcher in last spring's 23-11 state championship upset of Cactus Shadows and returns as one of the most talented pitchers in the state. When Zumbro takes to the mound, Pettet said, "we should have a chance of beating anyone in the 3A (conference)."
Zumbro is also a talented hitter who is being recruited to play baseball at several colleges including the Air Force Academy and Georgetown.
Also among the veterans, Garduno is slated for the shortstop position he manned ably last year.
Cade Bradley will start at second base and Nicky Brunson in center field.
Others in the 2000 Longhorn mix is a foursome of returning lettermen eager to win their first starting positions. They include Kacy Parker, Joey Klein, Tyler Pettet and Cory McRae. Parker, Klein or Tyler Pettet -- the coach's son -- could be the second line pitcher behind Zumbro. If not pitching, Parker can also play in the outfield and Pettet has experience at third and first. McRae is battling for the starting catcher position.
Strengths and weaknesses
In assessing the 2000 roster, coach Pettet said the strength of the team will be its middle defense, with Brunson at center field, Garduno at shortstop, Cade Bradley at second and McRae at catcher.
A common thread that runs through baseball coaching philosophy, Pettet said, is that it is easier to find replacements "closer to the foul lines" than it is in the middle positions.
Offensively, the team lost much of its firepower with the departure of Walden who was once the state prep home run leader.
But the returning group, buoyed by a year of maturity, could boast several players capable of swatting a round trip ticket at will, Pettet said. "The lettermen are much stronger than last season. They could surprise us."
If the team does have any glaring weaknesses to shore up, they could revolve around pitching depth and overall inexperience.
If those shortcomings exist as Pettet suspects, he'll have the opportunity to rectify them at the Mohave (March 2 to 4) and Miami tournaments (March 8 to 11).
"In the tournament, we can evaluate our pitching situation and other position players," he said.
The tournaments will also serve as a valuable tune-up for all-important East region play which begins March 21 against Holbrook.
In assessing the East opposition, Pettet said, "our region will be very competitive. Snowflake and Blue Ridge have to be the favorites, based on the players they return."
Also, the coach expects Holbrook, Show Low and Round Valley to field strong teams, but said Alchesay is rumored to be the weak link of the region.
In preseason Arizona Baseball Coaches Association Polls, Globe was given the nod as the state's top-ranked team. Safford was second, Snowflake third, Chandler Seton fourth and Payson fifth.
Pettet anticipates Wickenburg, Sahuarita and Chino Valley will also field contending teams in the 3A conference.
What will it take?
For the Longhorns to repeat as state champions this spring, the team must first finish as one of the top four teams in the region, which will nail down a berth in the state tournament.
The 16-team tournament then becomes a two-weekend junkyard dogfight in which every entry has a legitimate shot at the crown, Pettet said.
"Once you're in, everybody has a chance to win it all, as evidence by our state championship last season," he said.
The 1999 team advanced to the state shoot-out as a lowly third seed and that came only after an 11-5 regular season playoff victory over Fountain Hills.
Cactus Shadows, who the Horns whipped in the state finale, entered the tournament as the number-one ranked division champion with a perfect 12-0 record.