If first-year PHS boys basketball coach Mike Loutzenheiser has his druthers, the Longhorns will sport 4-1 East region credentials at the end of this week.
The team could accomplish just that by emerging victorious in a trio of upcoming road contests the coach said are winnable, "if we come to play."
The road trip comes on the heels of the Horns splitting a pair of games last weekend against Snowflake and Round Valley.
The Horns lost Friday in Wilson Dome 88-51 to Snowflake but the following day beat RV 61-48.
This week's stint begins Tuesday in Whiteriver against Alchesay and continues Friday at Lakeside Blue Ridge. The trip wraps up Saturday in Show Low.
Although most coaches would cringe at the idea of going on the road for three consecutive games that will ultimately have a huge impact on the East standings, Loutzenheiser said he's actually looking forward to the jaunt. That's because the trip will give his young and mostly untested players the opportunity to gain the invaluable experience of playing crucial games in front of hostile crowds.
Those showdowns, the coach predicts, will prepare his team for the dog days of the title chase later this month and early February.
The team, which has only two returning letter winners on its roster, received its indoctrination into East region play Friday in the loss to Snowflake.
A loss to Round Valley the following day would have severely damaged Horn hopes for earning a berth in the playoffs. Much to the relief of Loutzenheiser, the Horns turned in their finest effort of the season in the win over Round Valley.
In both games, the Horn defense faced two of the most prolific scorers in the 3A conference.
Snowflake was led by Porter Caldwell's 20 points and Round Valley was paced by 32 points from Layton Hamblin.
Although Caldwell treated the Wilson Dome crowd to a thrilling shooting display, it was Hamblin who was red hot. He kept them in the game. Everything they did went through him," Loutzenheiser said.
Some of Hamblin's most impressive contributions came from beyond the 19 foot, 9 inch arc where he hit six three-pointers with Payson defenders hounding him.
"We actually played decent defense. He just hit the shots," Loutzenheiser said.
Payson was able to overcome Hamblin's one-man show with a well-rounded offensive attack that was spearheaded by 20 points from Waylon Pettet. Mike Barr tallied 18 and Nikki Cassuto scored 12.
It's not been often this season that the Horns sported three players who scored in the double digits.
Following the game, Loutzenheiser lauded Barr for his hustle and contributions on the board that included corralling 13 rebounds.
"He had a heck of a game," the coach said.
In addition to the scoring of Parson's big three, the Horn cause was fueled by a 1-2-2 zone press that frustrated the Elk offense.
When not pressing, the Horns played solid man-to-man defense. Thanks mostly to the defense, Payson jumped out to a 15-9 lead and never looked back.
The crucial win was just what the doctor ordered for Loutzenheiser, who had to watch his team lose to Snowflake one day earlier.
"I sleep a lot better when we win," he said.
If that's so, the coach must have never closed his eyes Friday night after the Lobo showdown. In the East region opener for both teams, the Lobos built an early 18-14 cushion and expanded it to 40-29 at halftime.
In the second half, things only got worse as the Lobos outscored Payson 48-21.
What made the defeat even more disheartening was the fact that Barr who has been the team's go-to guy most of the season was held scoreless for the first time this year.
Throughout the game, Snowflake double-teamed Barr in the low post, seldom allowing his teammates to get him the ball in scoring position.
The following evening against Round Valley, after a talk with Loutzenheiser, Barr came out with a vengeance.
In Friday's loss, Pettet led the anemic Payson offense with 17 points. Matt Woolwine finished with nine and Matt Woolwine and Nikki Cassuto had eight each.