Clutching only the third regional championship in the history of Payson High School boys basketball, the Longhorns open postseason tournament play today (Friday) eager to reap more honors.
Payson springs into second-round tournament action at 8 p.m. in Eagar/Springerville against the Round Valley Elks. Round Valley advanced to play Payson by beating Blue Ridge in the first round of the regional tournament played Tuesday in Eagar/ Springerville.
As the East's No. 1 seed, the Horns received an opening round bye.
If the Horns are to win the East match and earn a top seed into the state tournament Feb. 18 in Flagstaff, the team must rely on the all-around play of the 10 players on the roster.
Throughout the season, the Horns were able to compile a 17-6 record, mostly because all of the players contributed to the team effort. When one player wasn't having a particularly good night, another would usually step up to fill the void.
Also, a physical style in which the Longhorns refused to back down from challenges contributed to team success.
One of the more physical players, senior forward Jake Swartwood, learned midway through the season that he could continue his rugged style and still stay out of foul trouble. With the 6-foot, 3-inch Swartwood along side 6-foot, 7-inch Mike Barr, the Horns have good front line height.
Although senior Nicky Cassuto was the leading scorer, most Payson wins could be attributed to a well-balanced scoring attack.
An example is a midseason victory in which Cassuto led all scorers with 10 points. Not far behind were Derek Daniels (9), Swartwood (9), Barr (8), Kyle Hubbard (8), Chris Donaldson (6), Nate Acord (5) and Nate Perna (3).
If the Horns can maintain that type of offensive effort in the tournament, opponents will be kept off balance trying to figure out defensive schemes.
Defensively, the Horns have relied mostly on man-to-man and 1-3-1 zone defensive sets. The key to the success of the defenses lies in the players willingness to go chest-to-chest with opponents.
While doling out accolades to the champs, credit coach Mike Loutzenheiser -- in only his second year at the helm of the program -- for maintaining a cohesive team atmosphere in which the players seem to genuinely care about one another. It's not often a young coach like Loutzenheiser can keep 10 high-energy teenagers focused on a single goal for an entire season.
The last PHS boys hoop team to win a regional championship was the 1990-91 Longhorns coached by Jim Quinlan. The former coach says he's watched the current edition of the Horns play and is impressed with their physical play. However, he says it's impossible to compare the two teams because they play in different eras and different systems.
Just how good the Longhorns are lies in the regional and state tournaments, just around the corner. The winner of this evening's game will advance to the championship round at 8 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday) in Eagar/Springerville.