With the start of winter sports of basketball and wrestling on the horizon, the images of fall sports at Payson High are fading into the rearview mirror.
Preseason practices in both sports began Oct. 30 and will continue with after-school sessions until the onset of the regular season later this month.
Longhorn wrestlers will inaugurate the new season with an impressive list of credentials that includes a whopping 22 regional champions and a streak of five state crowns.
With 10 state championships, four state runner-up titles and a national top-25 ranking to their credit, the Horns boast one of the most successful wrestling programs in America.
Coach Dennis Pirch, who founded the wrestling team 27 years ago, excused some of the football and cross country athletes from the opening week of practices to allow them time to recuperates from the rigors of the fall season.
But Monday, a full contingent of athletes took to the mat to prepare for another title quest.
This year's Longhorn schedule will sport a new challenge in the form of a nationally ranked team representing Aztec, N.M.
Always looking to uncover strong competition to help the PHS athletes prepare for a run at the state crown, Pirch enticed Aztec into visiting Wilson dome Jan. 27.
Pirch promises the interstate clash will be a unique treat for Rim country wrestling fans. It will allow locals the opportunity to see how Rim country wrestlers fare against the best of New Mexico.
Taking on Aztec, however, won't be the only out-of-state competition for the Longhorns.
The Horns visit Costa Mesa, Calif. Jan. 5 and 6 to participate in the Estancia Tournament.
For almost 15 seasons, the Horns traditionally traveled to California after the Christmas holidays to show their wares in the Bolsa Grande Invitational. But last year at the last minute while the team was housed in a California motel coaches opted to switch to the Estancia Tournament, saying it would provide stiffer competition.
The change proved to be a good move for the Horns when a bomb threat forced cancellation of the Bolsa Grande affair.
The Horns went on to win the Estancia tournament and will return to defend the title.
Winter hoop play
A highlight of the girls' regular basketball season will be the Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 jaunt to the River Valley Tournament. There, the team could play as many as five games some of which will be contested in Needles, Calif.
Throughout the summer and in early season drills, first-year head coach Shaun Hardt has been preparing his hardwood crew for the trip west.
Hardt assumed the PHS reins last spring, replacing long-time coach Jerry Daniels who resigned at the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season.
Also on the Lady Horns' upcoming tournament agenda is the annual Payson Invitational holiday clash that will be contested Dec. 28 and 29 in Wilson dome. The tournament annually attracts solid competition including several Phoenix-area teams that usually test the Horns' mettle.
Horns on the hardwood
Once the regular season begins, the Horns will resume their longtime regional rivalries with the likes of Snowflake, Show Low, Blue Ridge and Round Valley.
New to the hoop scene this year will be Pinnacle a Valley school that will be fielding its inaugural basketball teams.
The last time the boys' basketball squad took to the court Feb. 9, 2000 it suffered through a 75-38 pounding administered by Round Valley.
The loss wrapped up a dismal 3-20 season (0-12 in the East) that coach Randy Wilcox would probably just as soon put behind him and his charges.
The challenges that await this year include the always-competitive Winslow Invitational Tournament Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. The fray draws some of the state's best small-school teams, including the northern Arizona reservation squads that have dominated past 3A state tournaments.
In addition to traveling to Winslow for tournament competition, the Horns are slated to attend the Camp Verde Invitational Dec. 27 and 28.
Last season, two of the Horns' three wins were garnered in the CV tournament.
Once the regular season rolls around, the Horns' stiffest competition for a berth into the state tournament should come from East powers Snowflake, Show Low and Round Valley.
And so it begins ...
The wrestling team jumps feet-first into East regional warfare Nov. 29 by traveling to the Round Valley High School dome where the Elks await.
The basketball squads debut Nov. 28 against Fountain Hills. The girls will travel to FH for games at 6 p.m. (jayvee) and 7:30 p.m. (varsity).
The boys' team hosts Fountain Hills in Wilson dome at 4:30 p.m. (freshman), 6 p.m. (jayvee) and 7:30 p.m. (varsity).
The following day in Eagar, the PHS wrestling team springs into action against the homestanding Round Valley Elks. Match time is 6 p.m. (jayvee) and 7 p.m. (varsity).
For the hoop squads, the clashes against Fountain Hills represent the opportunity to fine tune their offenses and defenses before delving into crucial East region play Dec. 12 against Holbrook.