All good coaches prod their athletes to "play them one at a time," and not look past the most immediate challenge.
Ignoring that sound advice, fans might want to peer down the prep hardwood highway where they might see images of the Payson Longhorns and the Snowflake Lobos sharing the 3A East region regular season championship with identical 9-1 records.
That scenario turned possible Friday evening in Snowflake where the Lobos beat the Horns 81-69. The victory over Payson avenged Snowflake's 66-59 loss to the Horns Jan. 10 in Wilson Dome
Currently both teams --hich are ranked in the state's top-five -- are tied for the East region lead with 5-1 records.
Should the Lobos and Horns win their remaining four regular season games, which is very likely, the two will tie for the East title. If that occurs, the two would probably be declared region co-champions and a flip of the coin would determine the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds into the regional tournament Feb. 11.
Payson head coach Mike Loutzenheiser said he'd rather win the title outright, but to do that the Horns will now have to hope one of Snowflake's remaining four opponents can pull off an upset.
"It's possible (Snowflake) could lose, but that could happen to us too," he said. "We've got to take care of our own business."
That means the Horns will have to beat Round Valley today (Tuesday), Alchesay (Jan. 31), Blue Ridge (Feb. 4) and Show Low (Feb. 7). If the Horns win out, they are guaranteed at least a co-championship. The good news is that the remaining games, except for Blue Ridge, are to be played in Wilson Dome where Payson has not lost this season.
The loss to the Lobos put the skids on the Horns' (13-6) eight-game winning streak that had propelled Payson from relative obscurity into one of the 3A conference's elite teams
After taking a 16-10 lead over the Lobos in the first quarter, the Horns saw their cushion wither in a furious Snowflake rally. At halftime, the Lobos led 34-31. Snowflake continued to slowly pull away building a 61-50 lead early into the fourth quarter.
Each time Payson cut into the margin, Lobo sharpshooter Porter Caldwell would sink a crucial bucket. Caldwell finished with a game-high 33 points which is the same total he scored in the earlier season loss to the Longhorns.
"We knew he was going to get his points," Loutzenheiser said. "The difference in this game from the first is that we didn't do a good job of stopping the other players."
Snowflake's Joe Denhallter had 18 points and Jay Maxwell finished with 17.
For Payson, junior center/forward Mike Barr powered his way inside for a team-high 27 points. From the free-throw line, Barr cashed in on 10 of 13 attempts.
Senior Jake Swartwood contributed 13 points and a gem of a defensive play, blocking a slam-dunk attempt by Denhallter. On the play, Denhallterrove baseline looking for the slam.
"I saw him and left my man to help out," Swartwood said. "I figured I could out-jump him -- got the block (attacking) from the side."
Swartwood's defensive stop brought the cheering Payson faithful to their feet in appreciation. The team's leading scorer, Nick Cassuto, contributed nine points and Derek Daniels had seven. Waylon Pettet finished with six.