A basketball season that once overflowed with promise ended in disappointment for the Payson High School basketball team.
In early January, the Payson boys opened the East regional campaign with a pair of victories over Holbrook and Pinnacle. With a 2-0 slate, the team was tied for first place and in the running for bundles of team and individual honors.
Lending more hope to the Horn's prospects was a good showing in the season opening Winslow Ames Ford Shoot-out, where the Horns whipped Class 5A Phoenix Central.
An eventual berth into the state championship tournament a team goal at the onset of the campaign seemed likely.
But the once promising season came to a screeching halt Thursday in Whiteriver with a 60-52 East regional tournament second-round loss to the Falcons.
With the defeat, the team wrapped up a campaign that saw it finish 10-14 overall and in seventh place (3-11) in the eight-team East region.
Along the way, the team lost its head coach of the past three seasons Randy Wilcox. The coach stepped down with five games remaining in the regular season because, he said, he was not willing to sacrifice or relax his standards.
Now all that's left for PHS coaches, players and fans is a two-week waiting period to learn if any of the PHS players impressed opposing coaches enough to be voted onto the all-region team. That star squad will be announced Feb. 24 at the conclusion of the state tournament.
The wheels began to fall off the Horn wagon in mid-January just after the team went on a five-game skid that saw it lose to Blue Ridge (57-34), Snowflake (93-38), Alchesay (78-65), Holbrook (61-33) and Round Valley (49-43).
During the frustrating stretch, Payson was outscored 338-213.
The downward trend continued Jan 23 with a 69-49 loss to Snowflake in Wilson Dome. In the defeat, Wilcox said he hoped the team could rebound in the post season.
"I think we can beat any of the (East teams) on a good night. Even if we finish low in the (region) standings, we can still beat teams on the road (in the regional tournament)," he said.
But only days later, after suspending two players for two games and disciplining others for team rule infractions, Wilcox stepped down.
His resignation brought outcries from many, including former Payson High School football coach Jim Beall who said, "I'm sick about this. I don't want Randy to have to go through what I did."
Beall resigned at the conclusion of the 1999 season after leading the Horns to an undefeated state championship a year earlier.
Following Wilcox's resignation speech to the team, PHS Athletic Director Dave Bradley took over the coaching duties, saying Wilcox's decision caught him by surprise.
With Bradley at the helm, the Horns wrapped up the regular season 1-3 and advanced to the opening round of the tournament as a seventh-place seed.
The Horns tipped off the tournament Feb. 9 by upsetting homestanding Holbrook 74-52. In the foul-marred contest that saw 68 free throws, Mike Doss led Payson in scoring with 14 points. Sophomore Waylon Pettet tallied 14.
The win propelled the Horns into the regional second round played Feb. 10 in Whiteriver. There, the Horns showed a glimpse of the post-season promise that Wilcox had predicted a month earlier.
With the score dead-knotted 50-50 with less than two minutes remaining, the Horns were on the verge of pulling off the most unlikely of all upsets.
But, good free-throw shooting by Alchesay's Blaine Goklish (6-for-6, in the fourth quarter) spelled the demise of Horn hopes.
If Rim country fans were to search for reasons for the 8-point loss, they might want to focus on Payson's free throw shooting. By hitting only 7 of 18 freebies (39 percent), the Longhorn team was its own worst enemy. In the crucial final quarter, the Horns cashed in on only 5 of the 12 free throws awarded them.
Poor free-throw shooting was nothing new for the Longhorns. All season, the team stumbled at the line, finishing most games with 30- to 40-percent showings.
Prior to his departure, Wilcox lamented that poor shooting would some day catch up to the Horns.
The survivors of the regional tournament, Show Low, Round Valley, Snowflake and Alchesay, advance to the state tournament, which begins today (Tuesday) in Flagstaff.