Coach Teddy Pettet could be going eye-to-eye against some of the greatest obstacles he's had to overcome in his 15 years at the helm of the Payson High School baseball program.
Those challenges center around filling the cleats of several talented starters who graduated last spring with the class of 2002. Among them were Ky Bradley, Sean Pickle, Robbie Ochoa, Darrin Grover and Levi Armstrong. The five played key roles in leading the Longhorns to a 2002 state tournament berth.
Another loss the Horns will have to overcome is the absence of Chad McRae who will be playing this season for Queen Creek. Last summer, after McRae turned a steady season for the Horns, his family moved to the Valley.
With six former starters no longer in the lineup, Pettet is convinced, "we have a lot of holes to fill this season."
If there is a solid foundation on which the coach can build the new team, it's a pitching staff he predicts "could be one of the better ones in the East (region)."
The mound aces appear to be former catcher Ashton Shewey and returning letter-winner Jeremy Heariet.
"They are our top two," Pettet said.
The emergence of Travis Sanders at catcher allowed Pettet to move Shewey from behind the plate to a slot on the hill.
In addition to Shewey and Heariet, the coach can call on Jon Beeson and Ricky Young to hurl. Having played for PHS last season, Beeson is a known quantity. Young, however, is new to the program after having to sit out last season because he transferred to Payson from River Valley.
Pettet is predicting both pitchers can contribute to the Longhorn cause.
Others in contention for hurling duties are Manny Arguello, Austin Goss and possibly Waylon Pettet.
At first base, returning letter-winner Mike Hansen and Shewey -- when he's not pitching -- could share duties.
In the battle for starting honors at second base, David Curtiss and Arguello are neck and neck. Curtiss played on the junior varsity team last season. Arguello is a newcomer who has a unique connection to the sport -- his father owns and operates the new batting cage in Payson.
The Longhorns appear solid at shortstop where senior Nate Perna, an all-region selection last season, returns to anchor the infield defense.
At the hot corner, three candidates -- Heariet, Beeson and Young -- are contending for starting laurels.
The cornerstone of the outfield will be senior center fielder Waylon Pettet. By the time the season wraps up, his outstanding speed and strong throwing arm might have him in contention for a spot in the Arizona Coaches Association all-star game.
In left field, letterman Ty Brunson is back at his old position.
Heariet could get the nod in right field if he can hold off challenges from James Paul and James Huddlestun. Both Paul and Huddlestun played on the jayvee team last season.
Other candidates for the outfield are Trevor LaHaye and Kyle Fogarty.
Utility players who could earn a spot on varsity roster include sophomores Tyler Williams, Kyle Sachak and Donnie Wilbanks.
Williams is penciled in as a catcher and Sachak can pitch and play third. Wilbanks might see time at second base when he's not on the mound.
Offensively, Pettet refuses to make any conjectures saying it's impossible to predict how the younger players will respond to the challenges of facing varsity pitching.
"We will just have to wait and see who steps up," he said.
However, there is one player in the lineup who is a known entity at the plate -- Pettet.
"He is our best hitter by far," the coach said.
With another year of seasoning behind him, Shewey, a solid hitter last season, could round nto one of the better offensive players on the team.
The Longhorns were set to test their diamond skills Feb. 28 in a controlled scrimmage in Winslow. Due to snowy weather conditions on the Rim, travel was deemed dangerous and the scrimmage was called off. The weather has also forced the cancellation of several practice sessions.
In assessing the East region this season, Pettet thinks the defending champion Show Low Cougars is the team to beat. The Cats, however, will have to play without the services of all star hurler Doug Mathis who graduated last spring.
All season, Mathis dominated opposing hitters and eventually wrapped up the campaign as the best pitcher in the region.
Pettet also predicts that Snowflake and Blue Ridge could be in the running for a state playoff berth. Because Round Valley has an established returning pitcher, the Elks might be the surprise of the region.
If inclement weather doesn't force cancellation of this weekend's Thunderbird Invitational Tournament, the Longhorns will be participating in the fray at Mohave High School.