The 2003 edition of the Payson Girls Holiday Hoops Basketball Tournament has drawn 16 of Arizona's finest high school teams.
Among the basketball powers entered are Flagstaff Sinagua, Tuba City, Round Valley, Mesa Westwood, Fountain Hills and host Payson.
Others who could contend for tournament honors include Tucson Canyon del Oro, Agua Fria, Prescott, Roughrock, Mesa, Tucson Catalina, Scottsdale Arcadia, Many Farms and San Luis.
After scouring the list of teams set to participate, Lady Longhorn coach Rory Hoff was left anticipating a fiercely contested tournament when it is played Dec. 29 and 30 in Wilson dome and the old PHS gym.
"We've got some very good teams in there," he said. "It will be interesting."
If there is an odds-on favorite in the field it would be the powerful Round Valley Elks, led by former Lady Longhorn star Whitney Hardt.
The Lady Elks are coming off a season in which they lost just one game on their way to the Class 3A state championship. Much of the talent from that gold medal squad has returned to the Elk fold.
Tuba City, where the community is a hot bed of basketball, also cannot be overlooked in the championship race.
Another top contender could be the Sinagua Mustangs who are currently ranked among the 4A conference's top-10.
Tournament action tips off at 10 a.m., Dec. 29 with Payson taking on Fountain Hills in Wilson dome. Also at 10 a.m., but in the old PHS gym, Sinagua plays Arcadia.
Games continue every 90 minutes through the day until the finale tips off at 8:30 p.m.
Action resumes at 8 a.m., Dec. 30 in both the dome and gymnasium.
The championship game is slated for 8 p.m. that evening.
Admission per day is $5 for adults and $3 for children.
The Lady Horns
In compiling an 8-2 record during the early season, the Lady Longhorns have been a mild surprise. After losing their coach, Crystal Garvin, and two starters, Ashli Herrera and Trista Carlton, from last year's team, the Lady Horns were a big "if" when preseason practices began in November.
Those "ifs" appear to have been answered in the early season. The players have responded well to the coaching of Huff and several on the roster have stepped up to fill the void created by the loss of Herrera and Carlton.
The resiliency of the coach and players has produced a team that is currently executing with a lot of confidence.
One of the keys to any success the team might enjoy during the Holiday Hoops is how well the squad's full-court, man-to-man pressure defense holds up.
If the players can turn up the defensive heat on their opponents and create turnovers, the Lady Horns could be a tournament contender.
Of course, when the press forces turnovers the miscues must be turned into fast break layups and easy baskets.
A hoop clinic on how the press defense and transition offense should be run occurred Dec. 13 in the Lady Horns' 53-22 shellacking of the Prescott Badgers.
Prescott fell behind early 17-6 mostly because the players couldn't solve a suffocating Payson defense that thwarted their every attempt to bring the ball up court. After the Payson lead reached 34-8 at halftime, Huff called off the press to allow the Badgers to return home with some type of respect intact.
As odd as it sounds, the real strength of this year's team might be the lack of a dominating superstar. Throughout the early season, the team has thrived on a well balanced offensive effort in which any of five girls is capable of leading the team in scoring.
Among those who have been scoring leaders this year are Krystal McRae, Haylee Huff, Kodi Kepp, Britney Owens and Autumn Herrera.
Guards Tanya Davis and Danielle O'Haver have also made significant contributions offensively and defensively.
The two surprises of the year, sophomores Tracy Fitzpatrick and Kendra Francis, are rapidly developing into solid varsity players.
Reserve Denise Nottingham provides the team with much needed depth.
Win or lose, the tournament's two-day skirmish will provide the players with the experience they'll need to be effective once the Class 4A regular season tips off Jan. 3 in Page. Holiday Hoops will also give Huff the opportunity to evaluate his players and settle on a starting lineup for the conference opener.