After spending much of the first half of the season toiling on the road, the defending state champion Payson Longhorn golf team is primed and ready for some old-fashioned home cooking.
A healthy plate of that will come during the next few weeks when the team hosts the four teams that whipped the Longhorns earlier in the campaign Sedona, Fountain Hills, Safford and Phoenix Christian. Those Payson losses, all by the narrowest of scores, occurred on the opponents' home courses.
The advantage of playing at home is an edge in any sport, but it might be an even greater factor in golf because the team is more familiar with the nuances of its own course, having practiced there daily.
The chance to host four of the best small-school teams at Rim Club and Chaparral Pines is appealing to Payson High School coach Bret Morse.
"We played them at their courses, now they are coming to our house," he said.
Phoenix Christian and Sedona are on the Longhorn agenda April 4 at the Rim Club. East region member Snowflake also will participate in the 18-hole agenda scheduled to tee off at noon.
April 8 at Chaparral Pines, Safford, Desert Christian and Fountain Hills lock horns with Payson in an 18-hole tournament beginning at noon.
Most of those visiting teams bring lofty credentials to the Rim country.
In addition to an earlier season win over the Longhorns, Phoenix Christian is the defending state 2A champion and a solid favorite to repeat the title.
Safford was the 3A state champion two years ago and runner-up to Payson last season.
Leading at the conclusion of the first day of state play last spring, Safford eventually succumbed to a late rally by the Longhorns.
This year, the Bulldogs are projected to have the firepower to try and wrestle the state title from the Horns when 3A finals are contested May 6 and 7 in Wickenburg.
Sedona and Fountain Hills, Morse said, "have the most talent of any of the 3A teams."
Although Snowflake has lost some of the luster of its topnotch teams of past years, the Lobos continue to be a force on the East region scene.
Morse predicts that for the Longhorns to play on even terms with the likes of Fountain Hills, Sedona, Safford, Phoenix Christian and Snowflake, the entire roster must turn in solid a effort.
"We need consistent play from No. 1 through 5 (players)," he said.
Horns claim two runner-up finishes
Before taking a brief respite for the Payson Unified School District's two-week spring break, the Longhorns traveled March 16 to the Thatcher Invitational and March 21 to Raven course near Phoenix South Mountain.
In the 18-hole Thatcher event, played at Mount Graham Golf Course near Safford, the Horns were part of a 16-team field comprised of mostly 2A and 3A schools.
Following a spirited day of action, Safford emerged as tournament champion with a card of 316. Payson (321) finished second and Show Low (332) was third.
In the "play five, keep four" scores format, the Horns' best effort was turned in by sophomore Billy Bob Hoyt. Posting a 75 on the par 72 course, Hoyt finished tied for third in the 80-player field.
Due to the tie, a playoff was required to decide the third-place medalist.
That showdown against Safford's Brandon Martin the individual defending state champion continued for two holes but ended with the pair still deadlocked. Because of the late hour, tournament officials signaled for a chip-off, which Hoyt won in rather undramatic fashion.
"I let him chip first and he didn't hit (well) so I just tried to chip closer than he did," Hoyt said.
Also for the Horns, Jeff Higgins tied for eighth with a tally of 79. Like Hoyt, he had to go to a chip-off to claim a tournament medal.
Trailing the two Payson leaders were John McDermott (80), Brandan Kelley (87) and Kyle Kent (88).
In the 9-hole tournament at the Raven course, the Longhorns once again finished second, carding a 200. Host Phoenix Christian (196) was first and Northwest Christian (221) took third.
In the "play six, keep five" scores format, Hoyt's individual play captured the attention of coaches, players and fans. By shooting eagle on the ninth and final hole, Hoyt won low-medalist honors with a three-under-par 30.
Hoyt's herculean effort represented the lowest round he's shot in his two years of high school golf.
"It was a great round," Morse said.
"I didn't put myself in any really bad situations," Hoyt said of his record second round.
What made the feat even more impressive was the fact Hoyt was unfamiliar with the course.
"I only played it once ... when I was 12 years old," he said.
McDermott also played well for the Horns, finishing tied for second, three strokes behind Hoyt.
Rounding out the PHS scorecard were Kelley (41), Kent (44) and Allan McDermott (46).