Challenging California's big school powers proved to be a break-even task for the Payson boys summer basketball team.
Competing July 11 to 14 in the 40-team University of California at San Diego basketball tournament, the Payson squad made up mostly of players who will be vying for varsity roster spots next season finished with a 3-3 record.
That showing drew praise from Payson High's second-year coach Mike Loutzenheiser.
"We played awesome," he said. "I was really happy with the way we worked together as a team."
One of the keys to the team's success in California was the leadership provided by five seniors Jake Swartwood, Derek Daniels, Nathan Accord, Nick Cassuto and Chris Donaldson.
"Those seniors did a great job they really stepped up for the tournament," Loutzenheiser said.
Another senior team member, Waylon Pettet, did not make the trip due to a commitment to baseball which he also plays in the summer months.
Payson opened the UCSD tournament in impressive fashion defeating California Peninsula 58-45.
Following the clash, Loutzenheiser said Swartwood, who scored 16 points played a great game.
The next Payson victim, Los Angeles Damien, fell to Payson 46-42.
This time around it was Mike Barr and Cassuto who paced the Rim country effort.
"Both of them had good all-around games," the coach said.
The pair of first-day victories propelled Payson into the championship round of its eight-team bracket against Bakersfield Hart High School.
After watching his team suffer its first tournament loss, to the tune of 63-48, Loutzenheiser compared Hart to Arizona's 5A powerhouse Mesa Mountain View.
"Like Mountain View, they were disciplined," he said. "They ran their offense very well."
With a 2-1 record, Payson was seeded for the remainder of the tournament into the Triton, or elite bracket.
Against Madera, a school with a student body of 4,000-plus students, Payson was forced to play most of the game without Barr, their 6-foot, 6-inch inside threat.
Early in the first quarter he was sidelined with a groin injury.
A 57-51 loss dropped Payson into the consolation bracket.
There, Payson rebounded to nip Coachilla Valley 41-40 and stay alive in the tournament.
Hours later, however, Payson was eliminated by a 63-48 loss to San Diego Fallbrook.
With a .500 tournament record, Payson returned to the Rim country with a 10th-place finish and the confidence the team can play on the same court with some of California's best teams.
"I don't think the kids were ever intimidated even though we were the smallest school (in the tournament)," Loutzenheiser said.
"When you get out on the court and start playing you don't even think about how big the other school is," Swartwood said.
While basketball was the main focus of the trip, the team also enjoyed spending time on the California beaches.
"We went to LaJolla and Pacific (beaches) to swim and body surf," Swartwood said.
Another team highlight was residing in a university dormitory and living the college lifestyle.
"That was pretty cool," Swartwood said. "There's a lot of college girls."
The UCSD tournament marks the culmination of the summer basketball program that tipped off in June at the Payson Invitational.
In that tournament, Payson finished fourth in the 16-team field.
Weeks later, Payson was slated to travel to Lakeside for the Blue Ridge Invitational Summer Showdown. That tournament, however, was canceled when the community was evacuated due to the threat of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
Loutzenheiser said the summer program, which also included two youth camps, was a complete success.
The athletes who participated in the off-season, he predicts, will be better prepared to contribute to the Longhorn effort when East region hardwood wars tip off in November.