Although first-year coach Krystal Garvin's Lady Longhorns came up slightly short in a 54-52 loss to Tuba City Saturday night in Wilson Dome, the team's stellar performance could mean a bright state tournament future.
Tuba City entered the non-regional fray as a perennial state championship contender that sported the run-and-gun offensive style and pressing defense that could have sent the Lady Horns reeling.
But refusing to be intimidated by the Warriors reputation, Payson was every bit the equal of the visitors.
Payson's two-point loss also represented a significant improvement over the last meeting between the two teams, in the Payson Holiday Hoops Tournament: Tuba City won by seven.
Preliminaries wrap up
With the experience of seven nonregional games and two tournaments behind them, the Lady Longhorns are primed and ready for their meat of their schedule. That includes playing a series of 11 regional games in the upcoming two months.
The results of those encounters will be used to seed the Lady Longhorns into the first round of the regional tournament to begin Feb. 11. If Payson survives the opening round, the team will advance to the quarterfinals slated to begin Feb. 12 in Eager/Springerville. That tournament wraps up the following day with the championship contest.
The top four teams from the East battles are seeded into the 16-team state tournament which begins Feb. 18 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
The state championship final-four round --which a Lady Horn team has never reached --will be played Feb. 21 and 22 at America West Arena in Phoenix.
Payson's toughest competition for East honors might come from Round Valley where former Lady Longhorn star Whitney Hardt is now playing. Hardt's talent coupled with that of Payson Holiday Hoops Most Valuable Player Ashton LeSeur gives the Elks a one-two punch that is tough to defend.
The two Round Valley stars led the Elks to the championship of the Holiday Hoops Dec. 27 and 28 in Wilson Dome.
Payson will counter the Elks and other East foes with two all-tournament selections of their own -- Ashli Herrera and Haylee Huff. The duo helped Payson to a third-place finish in the Holiday Hoops showdown.
Following the tournament, coach Garvin praised the efforts of her young players for showing remarkable poise under trying conditions.
While most East schools feature veteran teams, the Lady Horns roster sports six sophomores and only three seniors.
The top two scorers from last season, Brandi Waugh and Hardt, are no longer with the team. Last spring, Waugh graduated with the class of 2002.
Throughout the early season, the Horn offense has been led by Trista Carlton and Ashli Herrera who both play the forward/center positions.
In a Holiday Hoops win over Rough Rock, Carlton led the scoring parade with 20 points and Herrera had 18.
In addition to Carlton and Herrera on the front line, Garvin also has Hillary Hardt and Kody Kepp to battle in the low blocks.
In the back court, Autumn Herrera, Tanya Davis and Huff have drawn the majority of ball-handling chores.
When Garvin turns to the bench, she has several capable reserves who can supply much needed depth.
Although her team is inexperienced, Garvin has expressed confidence that the Lady Horns can contend for a state playoff position in the rugged East region.
"This team has heart," Garvin said. "The girls refuse to give up."