The success of the Payson High School boys basketball team could rest on the shoulders of four senior letter winners Sterling White, Brad Bynum, David LaForge and Tyler Pettet.
All return to the Horn fold after seeing significant playing time in last year's highly forgettable 3-20 campaign.
For the current team to thrive in the rough and tumble world of prep basketball, White who'll play low post will need to step forward as a team leader in at least three phases of the game rebounding, interior defense and scoring.
LaForge's responsibilities, as a forward or "3" player, will be to help out on the boards, fill the lane on the fast breaks and sink the open shot when the opportunity presents itself.
Bynum and Pettet, both guards, can contribute to the Horn cause with heady play on offense and rock solid defense.
An added duty will be to take care of the ball and not allow opponents to cash in on easy baskets courtesy of turnovers.
From the sidelines
If the lettermen should falter, coach Randy Wilcox in his third year at the helm of the program can call upon a talented trio of other seniors who spent most of last season on the jayvee team.
They are Dusty Brockett, Matt Taylor and Steve Williamson. Because all three are guards, the Horn back-court appears to be well stocked with capable players.
With only White returning at the post position, the slot appeared to be the weak spot of the Longhorns. But early this school year, Mike Doss transferred to PHS from Phoenix Greenway and could be the remedy Wilcox was searching for.
Doss has shown well in preseason drills and when teamed with White, the pair sport the potential of providing the Longhorns the low post toughness they've long been lacking.
Adding more of a low-post threat to the Horn arsenal is the presence of junior Jeremy Greenburg who recently wrapped by a highly successful football campaign playing on the offensive and defensive lines.
Another refugee from the football program, Ky Bradley, starred at guard for the jayvees last year and will be looking to elevate his game to the varsity level.
As the Horns starting quarterback, Bradley had more than his share of bumps and bruises in the Horns 6-5 season. His mental toughness and athletic experience should serve him well once the 2000 campaign tips off.
Other juniors on the varsity roster include Lonnie Eden and Matt Woolwine.
With the season opener set for Nov. 28 in Fountain Hills, Wilcox is still mulling over his starting five. Work ethic will weigh heavily into the decision regarding who gets the starting nod.
"If you are not working hard, you are letting down the guy next to you that's what we're trying to stress," the coach said.
He said he might not pick the starters until days before the opener.
In preseason, Wilcox and assistant coach Greg Marrs were forced to make several tough decisions to cut the final varsity roster to 12. With those chores done, the team is now set, which means practice time can be devoted to conditioning, fundamentals and offensive and defensive execution.
Fans might notice an offense strategy change that alters the way the Horns attack zone defenses.
This season, the team will utilize a "short corner" set highlighted by quick rotation of the ball around the defensive perimeter and several skip passes across the top of the zone.
"It'll be back, forth and quick," Wilcox said.
The new offense, which has long been superbly executed by 5A powerhouse Mesa Mountain View, could free up Horn players for open jump shots and dribble drives to the hoop.
When facing man-to-man defenses, the Horns will stay with their motion offense, which has proven successful when players show patience and wait for defensive lapses.
"We want four or five passes," Wilcox said. "Let the defense make a mistake."
Defensively, the Horns will continue to concentrate on fundamental man-to-man principles. But that doesn't mean the coaches won't throw an occasional half, 3/4 or full-court press in to change the pace of the game.
"We want to mix it up, but do it on the fly," Wilcox said.
The teams to beat
With both Blue Ridge and Show Low football teams battling in the state tournament, East region basketball has been put back burner for at least a week.
"I really haven't heard much about who the top (basketball) teams will be this year," Wilcox said, "but I expect both Show Low and Round Valley to be tough."
The Alchesay Falcons because of their run-and-gun, high-scoring style can't be counted out of the East chase.
Snowflake is an unknown, but its tradition-rich program always manages to help the Lobos find a way into contention.
As for the team's ambitions this year, the Horns are working toward "being at state in February," Wilcox said.
To earn a ticket to the Big Dance, the Horns must finish among the East region's top four. Then they'll have the opportunity to play first at Northern Arizona University's Walkup Sky Dome in Flagstaff. If the Horns make it to NAU and shine, they'll advance for the first time ever to tournament finals scheduled for the America West Arena in Phoenix.
What does Wilcox think are the team's chances of reaching the state tournament for the first time in three years?
"If we gel as a team," he said, "we'll be pretty good."