Sporting a 3-6 record, the Longhorns boys basketball team travels Dec. 28 to the Prescott area where the squad is entered in the Bradshaw Mountain Invitational tournament.
To most onlookers, the team's losing record would indicate it will not be a title contender in the Bradshaw showdown.
That assumption might be erroneous.
What is not obvious in the team's credentials is that the Longhorns have won two consecutive games over a pair of highly regarded Class 4A squads.
After falling to 1-6 at the conclusion of the Marana Invitational tournament Dec. 4 to 6, the Longhorns put on a show of true grit to defeat Prescott 69-54 (Dec. 10) and Pinnacle 67-55 (Dec. 12).
What makes the Payson turn-around against the two schools most impressive is that Prescott managed a runner-up finish in the prestigious Flagstaff Pepsi Cola tournament and Pinnacle is state seventh-ranked.
Coach Mike Loutzenheiser is cautiously optimistic that the back-to-back wins will serve notice to his young athletes that they can play on the same floor with some of the conference's best.
At the onset of the campaign, Loutzenheiser predicted his squad -- which has only two returning starters from last year's state quarterfinal team --ould get better as the year wore on.
His best hope, he said, was that the team could use the early season games and the Bradshaw tournament to round into playing shape before the 4A Grand Canyon region season begins Jan. 3 in Page.
Following the Page clash, the Horns play 11 consecutive regional games before the Grand Canyon tournament tips off Feb. 10.
If there is a reason behind the Horns recent success, it might be Loutzenheiser's decision to abandon the man-to-man pressure defense the team relied on last year in favor of more zone schemes.
When holiday practices resumed Dec. 22 in Wilson Dome, Loutzenheiser was dedicating plenty of time fine-tuning the zone defenses.
Another key to any success the team might enjoy could be an offense that doesn't rely so heavily on the inside scoring of 6-foot, 7-inch forward/center Mike Barr.
As one of the finest low-post players in the conference, Barr draws plenty of defensive attention each time the Longhorns take to the hardwood. That means defenders are slacking off other PHS players to help guard Barr.
The Longhorns not being closely defended must make their opponents pay the price by stepping up with more scoring punch.
In the Horns win over Prescott, Andy Sargent, Kyle Hubbard, Darren Daniels and Donnie Wilbanks did just that. Sargent finished with a season-high 16 points and Hubbard and Daniels had 10 each. Wilbanks chipped in with 8.
The well-balanced scoring attack is just what Loutzenheiser was hoping would occur.
"We can't live and die on (Barr)," he said.
In whipping Pinnacle, the Horns once again displayed a well-polished offense in which three players scored in double figures. Barr tallied 16, Hubbard had 13 and Sargent finished with 11.
The Longhorns open the Bradshaw tournament at 11 a.m. Dec. 29 against Class 3A, No. 1 ranked Seton Catholic.
Next up for the Horns is a 4 p.m. game vs. Sandra Day O'Connor.
Other tournament game times will hinge on the results of the two opening games.
If the Horns can continue their offensive attack and tighten up the defense, a strong showing in the Bradshaw shoot-out is not out of the question.