After leading the Longhorn basketball team to its best record in 23 seasons, coach Mike Loutzenheiser recently took time off the court to praise the seven seniors who formed the nucleus of the team.
"I will miss the seniors, they would never quit." he said. "I am very proud of them and I wish them the best in college."
The seniors include Nate Acord, Nicky Cassuto, Derek Daniels, Chris Donaldson, Nate Perna, Waylon Pettet and Jake Swartwood.
As Loutzenheiser scanned a well worn scorebook that reflected the results of a 19-8 season and an East region co-championship, the coach reflected on the contributions of the individuals who will graduate this spring with the class of 2003.
Derek Daniels: "He's probably the most valuable player of our team. He led our team in assists, minutes and was third in scoring ... A great kid with a huge heart."
Nicky Cassuto: "Led our team in scoring and was a very talented offensive player. He worked very hard to get better ... He loves the game and it shows. He had one of his best games of the year in the first round of the state tournament -- 26 points and double digit rebounds."
Jake Swartwood: "Jake's a very athletic big guy. He really enjoys the game. He's also a good defensive player and often had to match up against a player much taller than him ... A good basketball player, but a much better young man."
Chris Donaldson: "Chris is absolutely our best defensive player ... A hard-nosed defender who would often guard players bigger than him. He gives 100 percent to the game ... Very coachable and a great young man.
Nate Acord: "Nate's a well-rounded player who could play in the post or out on the perimeter. He often had to guard power forwards ... can step out and shoot the three."
Waylon Pettet: "He's an aggressive defender ... would often guard the quickest kid on the other team. He can shoot the three (pointer), but is best when slashing to the basket ... he helped get us back in the game against Tuba City by taking the ball to the hole."
Nate Perna: "Nate's a very good athlete who kept getting better and better as the year wore on. He's an incredible rebounder for his size... started to become a good defender at the end of the year."
During the campaign, the seniors spearheaded a tremendous rally in which Longhorns won 14 of their final 17 games and posted a winning streak of eight consecutive victories.
The late showing of the team, Loutzenheiser said, was because "the kids played with a tremendous amount of heart and character."
After tying Snowflake for the regular season region championship, the Longhorns (9-1 in the East) advanced to the East tournament played Feb. 14 and 15 in Eagar/Springerville as a No. 1 seed. In the championship finale, the Horns lost 73-71 to Snowflake.
With a runner-up berth into the state tournament, which began Feb. 18 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, the Horns opened on a high note whipping Safford 63-53.
Dreams of a state championship ended however in a second round 57-53 loss to Tuba City.
Underclassmen on the team slated to return to the Payson fold next year include Mike Barr, Kyle Hubbard, Cort Connolly and Wellington Cassuto.
In a voting of East coaches at season's end, a trio of Payson players --arr, Daniels and Nicky Cassuto -- were named to the all-region first team. Honorable mention honors went to Swartwood and Hubbard.
At the East tournament, Daniels, Barr and Nicky Cassuto were named to the all-tournament team.
All that remains for the senior members of the team is the chance of being selected to play in the Arizona Coaches Association North vs. South All-Star game. ACA member coaches will select those all-stars next week. That clash will be played this summer in Casa Grande.