Throughout the practice week, Longhorn boys basketball coach Mike Loutzenheiser's energies have been directed at tuning up a team that has played hard, but failed to come away with a win in six outings.
The Horns opened the regular season with back to back losses to both Winslow, 58-42, and Fountain Hills, 72-55. Following those defeats, the team traveled to the Ames Ford Shoot Out in Winslow last weekend looking to nail down an all-important first win. But, during the three-day-long tournament the PHS players couldn't come up with the firepower or defense to earn their rookie coach a "W."
Losses to Flagstaff Coconino, 77-70, Phoenix Camelback, 69-51, Red Mesa 65-60, and Show Low, 57-55 dropped Payson to 0-6 on the season.
Payson will return to the hardwood Tuesday (Dec. 11) in Holbrook still grasping for the elusive win that could turn the season's tide in its favor. Game time in Holbrook is 7:30 p.m.
Declaw the Cougars
If there was a defeat in Winslow the Horns are eager to make amends for, it would be the two-point loss to longtime East region rival Show Low.
For Payson to realize its preseason dreams of a berth in the state tournament, the Horns must take care of Cougar business
Giant strides toward a regional top four finish and the resulting berth in the playoffs would come with wins over the Cats Jan. 19 in Show Low and Feb. 1 in Wilson Dome.
In fact, if there is a game that looms large on the Horn schedule, it is the regular season ending clash in the dome against the poker crew.
At stake in that contest could be a chance for an East seed into the state tournament.
But, that's a ways down the hoop highway and the Horns are focusing on righting a hardwood ship that was last seen listing in Winslow.
Against Show Low, the Horns trailed most of the game before mounting a fourth quarter comeback in which Payson outscored the cats 21-13.
In the final minute of play, the Horns launched a pair of game-tying shots that would have kept hopes alive but couldn't cash in on either attempt.
In any future meetings between the two teams, you can bet the house the PHS players will be paying closer defensive attention to Cougar sharpshooter Doug Mathis.
With a game high 22 points that included four three-pointers, Mathis was a thorn in the Horn side all afternoon long.
For Payson, junior forward Jake Swartwood led the offensive charge with 12 points. Matt Woolwine one of the team's two returning letter winners finished with nine. Nikki Cassuto, Derek Daniels and Mike Barr had eight each.
While the Horns mounted an impressive late comeback against Show Low, that wasn't the scenario in the loss to Red Mesa.
With the score dead knotted 48-48 early in the fourth quarter, the Horns were outscored late, 17-12.
Barr, a 6-foot, 5-inch sophomore center, pounded his way inside for a team-high 18 points. Daniels contributed 14 and Cassuto tallied 10.
Against Camelback, a team Payson whipped in last year's Shoot Out, the Horns received double digit scoring only from Daniels, who tallied 10 points six of which came from the free-throw line.
The foul-marred contest featured a whopping 63 free throws, 32 of which were awarded to Payson.
The Horns, however, could cash in on but 19 of the freebies.
Although Loutzenheiser is young, a 59 percent free throw shooting mark can turn a coach's hair gray very quickly.
Like the clash against Camelback, the Horns' battle against Coconino was besieged by fouls.
Officials whistled 52 tickets as the teams combined for 64 free throws.
Although Class 4A Coconoino was favored entering the game, the Horns gave the Flagstaff school fits all evening long.
As play opened in the fourth quarter, Payson remained in striking distance trailing only 51-49.
But buoyed by 11 successful free throw shots in the final going, Coconino pulled away to a seven-point victory.
With 20 points, Pettet led Payson in scoring. Barr tallied 14 and Cassuto had 13.