Randy Wilcox has known his share of sporting challenges. In Payson, he's served a two-year stint at the helm Longhorn boys basketball program, was a junior varsity assistant and has coached numerous Rim Country Middle School teams. Before moving to the Rim country, he spent several seasons as a varsity basketball coach in New Mexico.
Although he's a tested veteran, Wilcox will be the first to admit he's facing new challenges replacing Linda Gibson as head coach of the Lady Longhorn soccer team. With preseason practices now in their third week, Wilcox is just now settling into his new role.
Following Gibson's resignation last summer, PHS athletic director Dave Bradley predicted finding an adequate replacement for the popular former coach would be difficult. After weeks of searching, Bradley was able to convince Wilcox to take over the program.
Wilcox's late decision to coach the team didn't leave him much time to prepare for the fall campaign.
One of his most difficult tasks will be to find replacements for the talented seniors who graduated with the class of 2002. Those players, led by Leighann Owens, Jennifer Plumb and Shaina Vaught, helped the Lady Horns reach the state tournament semifinal round.
Also gone from last season's starting lineup are Brenna Zumbro and Jana Knighton.
Zumbro opted not to play soccer this season to devote full time to softball. Last summer, Knighton's family moved to Mesa.
For the Lady Horns, a second successive trip to the postseason will hinge on the efforts and leadership of a crew of returning players that includes Trista Carlton, Jenny Cohen, Megan Branstetter, Laura Crabtree and Amy Wilcox the coach's daughter.
Although Amy Wilcox is a talented player, she is often slowed by her battles with asthma. At last week's practices, she had to sit out one session due to an asthma attack and Carlton was on the sidelines with an injury.
In addition to the five veterans he can call upon, Wilcox has others with considerable talent and experience. They include Kira Hillegas, Jamie Davies, Krista LaHaye, Lori Wing, Kelsea Palace, Jessica Coleman, Hailee Byler, Katie Plumb and Lori Shepherd. In that crew, Wilcox has yet to find a goalie to replace Zumbro who held down that position last season.
Although the team suffers from the loss of Knighton, Zumbro and the seniors, Wilcox is buoyed by the fact the younger players received considerable experience on the Payson Hot Shots team that competed in a summer Flagstaff league.
"The sophomores really improved their skills under (Hot Shot coach) Grant Kepp's leadership," Wilcox said.
In preseason practices, the doldrums associated with the dog days of any fall sport have not squashed Wilcox's enthusiasm for the team.
"It's hard to get fired up about drills and conditioning, but the team is working hard," he said.
Offensively and defensively, fans won't notice many changes from what the Lady Horns sported during Gibson's tenure.
Wilcox plans on keeping the 4-4-2 offense as well as an aggressive, attacking defense that will take advantage of favorable individual match ups and double teams.
Although he has not yet established any hard-and-fast team goals, he says the accomplishment he deems most important is "to continue to be one of the top four teams in the state."
The Lady Horns will have the opportunity early in the campaign to prove they are among Arizona's best.
In the regular season opener Sept. 3, the Lady Horns are pitted against the defending state champion St. Johns Redskins. Game time in St. Johns is 6 p.m. The game will be preceded at 4 p.m. by a jayvee contest.
The clash against the Skins won't be the only chance the Lady Horns have to unseat the champs.
The two teams meet for a second time Oct. 23 at Rumsey Park.
Another team that could give the Lady Horns fits is a nemesis from last season Camp Verde.
"They will be tough," the coach said. "From last year, we know they have at least one very good player."
Regional competition begins Nov. 1 and 2 at various sites in Arizona. The state tournament is scheduled for Nov. 8 and 9.