For second-year Lady Longhorn basketball coach Shaun Hardt, the past campaign will always be fondly etched in his memory.
"This was the best season I have ever had the privilege of being a part of," he said.
During the course of the campaign, the Lady Horns played their way to one of the best records, 21-8, in the history of Payson High School girls basketball. The team also finished as the East Region runner-up, won the River Valley Pepsi Cola Shootout tournament, finished second at the Holiday Hoops tournament and advanced to the 3A state tournament quarterfinals before being eliminated by eventual tournament finalist Chandler Seton.
In the loss to Seton, the Lady Horns put on a show of true grit that had Payson leading at halftime.
But buoyed by a front line much taller than the Payson players, Chandler pulled away in the final seven minutes.
"The girls played Seton very tough," Hardt said.
The coach admits the 20-plus wins and tournament laurels were a big part of the season's success, but positive attitudes also played a role.
"What made it so fun was the girls' willingness to work hard," he said.
That work ethic was especially evident when the team was on the defensive. During the year, the Lady Horns' pressing-style of defense held opponents to less than 40 points in 13 games. In five other games, foes were held to less than 45 points.
"These girls played some of the best defense I have ever seen," Hardt said.
Also essential to the team's success was that when it came time for the coach to offer advice, the girls responded favorably.
"I think the best quality this team possessed was they didn't make a whole lot of excuses when criticized," Hardt said. "Most kids these days can't deal with being criticized about their mistakes."
Most of the season, the Lady Horn banner was hoisted high by five players who were the recipients of awards at the season-ending ceremony held Thursday evening.
Sophomore point guard Whitney Hardt, the coach's daughter, and senior forward Brandi Waugh were named the Lady Horns' co-most valuable players.
In addition to MVP laurels, both were chosen to the All-East Region first team in a voting of coaches at the conclusion of the season.
Waugh was also selected as a first alternate to the Arizona Coaches Association North vs. South All-Star game when it is played this summer in Casa Grande.
As the Lady Longhorns' scoring leaders, Whitney and Waugh averaged about 14 points per game.
Trista Carlton and Haylee Huff were chosen to the East Region second team.
At the awards ceremony, Huff was also named the team's Best Defender.
The Spark Plug award, which goes annually to the player who displays hustle and a never-say-die attitude, was doled out to Michelle Closs.
Because Closs and Waugh are seniors, both have donned Lady Longhorn basketball uniforms for the last time. The duo, Hardt said, will be sorely missed next season.
"Brandi was one of the best team leaders we have ever had. Her leadership and aggressiveness will be hard to replace," he said. "Michelle is probably the best kid I have ever coached. She has great character and spiritual leadership unseen in kids her age."
Although the team loses two of its topnotch players, the Lady Horns have a solid nucleus of veterans returning to help lead next year's team to even greater honors.
Among the letter winners returning to the Payson fold are Ashli Herrera, Laura Crabtree, Huff and Carlton.
The varsity could also receive an infusion of talent from the freshman and jayvee players including Tanya Davis, Hillari Hardt, Kody Kepp, Krystal McRae, Britney Owens and Autumn Herrera.
To help next year's players become as competitive as possible, Hardt has slated several off-season offerings. They include weight-training sessions, league play, a local youth basketball camp and a team camp to be held at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo.
The summer's weight sessions will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Wilson Dome girls weight room.
The Lady Longhorn camp is slated for 9 a.m. to noon June 3 through June 6 in both the old PHS gym and Wilson Dome. The camp is open to elementary, middle and high school aged girls. The fee is $30 and registration may be completed at the Payson Parks and Recreation Department located at Green Valley Park.
The Mesa State high school team camp will be held June 24 through June 27. The fee is $181, which should be paid to coach Hardt at Rim Country Middle School as soon as possible.
Hardt and other coaches will chaperone the girls to, from and while they are attending the camp.
The summer league, which is still in the planning stages, will feature games against other high schools on Tuesday evenings in the old gym and the dome.
For that prospective league to become a reality, Hardt will have to convince at least four other schools to become involved.
For more information on the summer program, call Hardt at 474-9272.