Vowing to put a team on the court that out-hustles and outscraps all opponents, first-year Lady Longhorn basketball coach Shaun Hardt is eager to make his varsity coaching debut.
"It's a challenge I'm looking forward to," he said.
Hardt, 35, moved to the head of the hoop program last spring, following the sudden resignation of veteran coach Jerry Daniels who had led the team to four state tournament appearances in seven years.
Although Hardt will carry the tag of rookie throughout the campaign, he brings to the prep playing table a strong athletic background that convinced school administrators he was the coach to engineer the Lady Longhorn express.
Hardt's resume includes coaching stints last year for the PHS jayvee boys and the Rim Country Middle School eighth-grade girls basketball teams.
The prior two seasons he worked as the PHS freshman boys coach.
As a three-sport standout for the Longhorns in the early '80s, Hardt has the opportunity to view the high school game from a player's perspective. In track and field, he set the school's mile record, (4:30.5), which still stands.
Growing up in the Rim country, Hardt excelled in football and track, but basketball had always been a way of life in his family.
His grandfather, Jiggs Hardt, retired two decades ago, after highly successful coaching careers at both Scottsdale and Phoenix North high schools. With more than 300 wins to his credit, Hardt was inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Chuck Hardt, Shaun's uncle, is a former Longhorn boys basketball coach who now heads both the PHS track and field and cross country programs.
Chuck Hardt has agreed to help his nephew on the junior varsity level, where he's an assistant to Rory Huff.
Shaun's wife Ellie (Teach), starred for coach Tim Fruth's Lady Longhorns in the early 1980s. Recently, Fruth proclaimed her the "best point guard to ever play for Payson High School."
In addition to his new coaching duties at PHS, Hardt is employed as a fifth-grade teacher at Payson Elementary School.
The game plans
If Hardt were to use a single word to describe his plan for the season, he said it would be "defense."
Everything that happens on the court for the Lady Longhorns, he said, will revolve around the team's man-to-man defense.
"That's the key," he said. "Even our offense will run off what we do on defense."
Although the players will be asked to play hard-nosed "man" defense, Hardt also anticipates calling upon 1-3-1 and 2-2-1 presses when warranted.
"Sometimes we will press full-court and put pressure on the ball, but we probably won't trap much; we'll be more basic," he said.
Offensively, Hardt's charges will look first to the fast break to try to cash in on easy baskets off opponent's turnovers.
If the break is not there, Hardt wants his players to pull the ball out and run a 1-4 high motion offense. He characterizes the offense as one with "a lot of movement, a lot of cutters (to the basket) and back door plays."
The new coach admits, however, that in preseason drills the girls have struggled with the new offensive scheme.
"It might be the three-quarter mark of the season before we really (perfect it)," he said.
One of the problems Hardt faced in instituting his new hoop strategy was a less-than-ideal turnout to the summer program.
"We did things in the summer," he said, "but in Payson, the (athletes) have so many other things to do, they are really stretched (for time)."
One of his goals, Hardt said, will be to make the off-season program a priority for the players.
If the Horn lineup features a legitimate candidate for postseason honors, it's senior Rheanna Martinez.
The teenager, a nationally ranked track and field star, rejoined the Lady Horns for pre-season practices after quitting the team late last season.
Her return to the lineup brought a sigh of relief to Hardt who said he realizes she is a great talent. "She can play just about any position on the floor," he said.
Against zone defenses, the Horn strategy will be to play Martinez in the low blocks where entry passes will get her ball near the basket. From there, she can power her way to the hoop or draw the two-shot personal foul. Her leaping ability and strength make her post-up shots almost impossible to defend.
When opponents throw man defenses against the Horns, Hardt will call upon Martinez to face the basket and use her speed and quickness to dazzle defenders.
Joining Martinez as the only other senior on the team is Sara Sieverson, who Hardt labels "a great kid with a good attitude."
When she's on the floor, Sieverson will hold down a post position. Her contributions, Hardt said, will include rebounding, interior defense and second shot attempts off Horn misfires.
Under Daniels' tenure, the Longhorns developed a corps of younger players who are now juniors with considerable playing experience.
They include Brandi Waugh, Jennifer Plumb and Leighann Owens.
Waugh is a versatile athlete who can hold down both guard and forward positions. Plumb and Owens are penciled in for duty at the point-guard slot.
In Plumb, Hardt has a legitimate long-range bomber who can sink the three-ball when it's needed.
"She's probably our best (three-point) shooter," he said.
Also in the line-up are a trio of other talented juniors Sam Ellsworth, April Cheek and Ashley Grubbs who need only playing time to become established varsity players.
Ellsworth didn't play basketball last season but joins the team fresh from earning post-season honors in volleyball. Both Cheek and Grubbs excelled on last season's jayvee squad, and late in the campaign picked up limited varsity experience.
Hardt had the opportunity Nov. 14 to preview his new team in a controlled scrimmage against Mingus Union High School.
According to Arizona Interscholastic Association guidelines, scores weren't supposed to be kept, but that's like asking Democrats to forget the Florida vote recount.
Unofficially, Payson whipped the Marauders 64 to 53 after what Hardt called "a slow start in which we looked ugly."
Before the season tips off in earnest Nov. 28 in Wilson Dome against Fountain Hills, Hardt will gather his players sans' coach for a goal-setting session.
Hardt has overheard some discussions about what should be accomplished this season. The suggestions range from "winning the state championship" to "playing together as a team."
As for the new coach, he predicts the Lady Longhorns will be a competitive bunch that will put on a display of grit and determination that will make local hoop fans proud.