If early season tournament results are a valid indicator, the high-flying Longhorn golf team just stamped itself a state championship contender.
Proof the Payson High linksters can play on the same course with the state's elite came March 29 and 30 at the prestigious 15-team Show Low Cougar Invitational.
In swinging their way to the cat tournament crown, the Horns pulled off the upset of the season, edging defending state champion Safford by two strokes. In preseason predictions, some in prep golf circles tagged Safford a solid favorite to earn a second successive title.
The red-hot Horns finished the Show Low affair with a two-day total of 656. Runner-up Safford carded 658 and bronze medalist Snowflake tallied 661.
The victory over the defending champs, Coach Bret Morse said, was a feather in his team's cap, but the Rim crew must continue to improve if it's going to make a run at the state title.
For Morse and his charges, there was good news in the SL Invitational win more so than simply defeating some of the state's best links squads. The Horns had the unique opportunity to play the same two courses Silver Creek and Torreon where the state championship will be contested May 7 and 8. Both courses are located near Show Low.
The chance to preview the courses and become familiar with its nuances will be an asset for Payson players in the state showdown, Morse predicted.
According to the coach, the par-72 private Torreon course, which will host the first day of the tournament, is much more difficult than par 71-Silver Creek where the second day of the tournament will be played.
Second day rally fuels Payson
At the end of the first day of the Show Low Invitational played at Silver Creek Fountain Hills led the championship race by several strokes.
But on the second day, when play shifted to the Torreon course,Payson overtook the slumping Fountain Hills squad. The once-soaring Falcons eventually limped across the finish line with a fourth-place tally of 667.
Individually, the Horn charge to the championship was led by a pair of talented freshmen who have long been active on the Junior Golf Association of the Arizona circuit.
Freshman Billy Bob Hoyt finished at 74 on the Silver Creek course and 79 at Torreon for a team-leading card of 153. Not far off the pace was classmate Brandan Kelley with a tally 157 (79 and 78).
Others representing the Longhorn varsity were Tyson McKee (86 and 84), Tyler Schrum (97 and 89) and Jeff Higgins (88 and 89).
In dual meet competition March 27 on the Rim course, Hoyt and Kelley led the Longhorns to a four-stroke win over Fountain Hills. Hoyt finished as the meet gold medalist with a 74. Kelley carded 75 and Tyson McKee 83.
The impressive wins at Show Low and over Fountain weren't the only occasions this season that the Horns showed their championship quality play.
In the team's season-opener March 14 at Silver Creek, Payson easily whipped two of the teams Snowflake and Show Low expected to contend for the East crown. Payson finished with a 317, Snowflake carded a 323 and Show Low turned in a 370.
Among the 45 golfers entered, Hoyt finished as the gold medalist with a 72.
In a 9-hole battle March 21 at Chaparral Pines, the Horns again flexed their collective muscle over East rivals. Snowflake (169), Pinnacle (176), Show Low (184), Blue Ridge (191) and Winslow (193) simply didn't have the talent to stay with the Horns (159).
One of the few times, Payson hasn't been on the victory stand at the end of a links fray occurred March 19 at Western Skies in Gilbert.
There, homestanding Chandler Seton relied on its familiarity with the course to edge the Horns 143-149. Hoyt and a Seton golfer dead-knotted for gold-medal honors for identical scores of 35.
The Horns will return to the course today (Friday) and tomorrow at the 36-hole Camp Verde Invitational at the Verde Santa Fe Golf Course.
Morse said he expected the lineup of Hoyt, Kelley, McKee, Schrum and Higgins would remain the same for the match in the Verde.