A Longhorn basketball team that once was stumbling along with a 5-5 record has improved to 12-5 and holds down the top slot in the East region standings with a 4-0 mark.
Coach Mike Loutzenheiser attributes the rapid improvement of his Payson High team to aggressive floor play, good defense and several yeoman-like performances from senior forward Nick Cassuto.
"To my way of thinking, he is the East's player of the year right now," he said. "I know Porter Caldwell (of Snowflake) is scoring more, but Nicky does more things better and doesn't take as many shots (as Caldwell).
The Horns' run to the top of the East standings received a huge boost last week when they won three consecutive games.
The streak began Jan. 14 in Eagar where the Horns whipped Round Valley 65-59. Jan. 16 in Wilson Dome, Payson outplayed the Blue Ridge squad 47-43.
The following day in Whiteriver, Payson relied on last-minute clutch free-throw shooting from Chris Donaldson to nip Alchesay 58-54.
After posting three narrow wins, two of which were on the road, Loutzenheiser said yesterday's (Monday's) practice session would be low key to allow the players some down time. The Horns return to East region action at 7:30 p.m. today (Tuesday) in Wilson Dome against Show Low.
During yesterday's practice, much of the session was devoted to improving the players' shooting skills.
"I'm happy with the way we are playing, but I'd really like to see us shoot better," Loutzenheiser said.
The Longhorns outside game received a huge boost in the win over Round Valley when senior guard Waylon Pettet returned to the lineup to sink a trio of three-pointers. His accuracy from outside the 19-feet, 9-inch arc gives the Horns another weapon that opponents must find a way to defend.
Against Alchesay -- which oddly enough was the Falcons' homecoming game -- the Horns were buoyed by the scoring of Cassuto who finished with 18 points. Derek Daniels posted 14 and Kyle Hubbard contributed eight. Hubbard's points were especially significant in that all came in the crucial fourth quarter. His offense helped Payson outscore the Falcons 22-17 in the final stanza.
Earlier, the Horns trailed Alchesay 37-36 and were struggling offensively.
"Kyle came up huge for us," Loutzenheiser said.
Payson's narrow win over Blue Ridge was once again fueled by Cassuto, who led all scorers with 17 points. Daniels tallied 12 and Mike Barr had nine points and 21 rebounds.
After falling behind 10-8 in the first quarter and 20-19 at halftime, Payson rallied in the third quarter to take a 35-30 lead. Thanks to a solid man-to-man defense, the cushion held up throughout the final minutes.
Against Alchesay, Cassuto continued to have the hot hand for Payson finishing with 15 points.
Daniels, who engineered the Horn offense from his point guard position, tallied eight. Jake Swartwood and Chris Donaldson contributed six each.
In prep basketball circles, posting a trio of wins by a combined total of 14 points -- as the Longhorns did last week -- could mean the team is living dangerously close to the edge. But that doesn't bother Loutzenheiser.
"Sometimes we play average, just well enough to win," he said. "But we are winning and that's what will get us to state."