Buoyed by his team's improved play in the Longhorn Invitational Summer Basketball Tournament, Payson High School basketball coach Mike Loutzenheiser is spewing optimism.
"I was incredibly pleased with our effort," he said. "We are obviously much further ahead of where we were at this time last year."
The 16-team summer tournament was contested June 14 and 15 in Wilson Dome, old Payson High School gymnasium and at Rim Country Middle School.
Among the reasons Loutzenheiser cited for the team's stepped-up court performances were the fact the team now has a full year of varsity experience and the players better understand his offensive and defensive system.
"Last year at this time, we had only three (veterans) and the players really didn't know me I was a first-year coach," he said.
During the weekend summer shoot-out that drew some of the best squads from around the state, Payson finished fourth overall with a 3-3 record. The victories were over Higley, Grand Canyon and Queen Creek. Losses were to Chandler Seton and 5A powers Mesa Mountain View and Mesa Red Mountain.
The two Mesa schools met in the tournament finale that was won by the Mountain View Toros.
Coached by part-time Payson resident Gary Ernst, the Toros put on a torrid showing in which they bested most opponents by more than 30 points.
In the championship, MV beat cross-town rival Red Mountain 73-47.
For Payson, Loutzenheiser lauded the play of his 6-foot 6-inch center Mike Barr.
"He was the best big man in the tournament," he said.
Also drawing praise were Jake Swartwood, Derek Daniels, Chris Donaldson and Nick Cassuto.
Swartwood, Loutzenheiser said, "was aggressive on the offensive end of the court and will be counted on more to score."
Cassuto drew praise for his polished play inside.
"He'll see more time in the paint," the coach said.
Daniels and Donaldson were cited for their defensive play.
About the only criticism the coach had of the team occurred in the loss to Seton which was played for tournament third-place honors.
"We did something we did all last year start slow and fall behind early," he said.
Although Payson was down as many as 15 points, the team battled back to lose only 66-65.
"Those slow starts really hurt us. That's something we are going to have to correct," Loutzenheiser said.
The tournament format had the teams playing in four pools Friday and in two-game tournaments Saturday. Payson emerged as the champion of its pool but then lost to Mountain View and Seton Saturday.
The tournament, Loutzenheiser said, was hampered by a few glitches when a team didn't show up and another couldn't compete Saturday. But most coaches, including Ernst, said they were satisfied with the competition.
"The coaches told me they wanted to come back next summer," Loutzenheiser said.
Next up in the Longhorn varsity summer program is a June 22 visit to Lakeside where the team will play in a Blue Ridge-hosted tournament.