Payson High School's heralded golf team will advance to the Class 3A Arizona State Tournament as East region champions and one of the favorites to win the state title.
Following an up-and-down regular season, the Longhorns nailed down the East region championship May 2 and 3 at Silver Creek and Show Low Country Clubs.
Payson's two-day total of 652 outdistanced those of the other East teams -- Show Low (673), Snowflake (679), Blue Ridge (777) and Estrella Footballs (disqualified).
The easy win over Snowflake was a surprise since the two teams split six matches with one another during the regular season.
The Longhorns now have their attention focused on the state tournament May 13 and 14 at Johnson Ranch in Queen Creek.
According to PHS coach Bret Morse, the Sedona Scorpions will enter the tournament as favorites.
"They are the defending 3A state champions and return four out of five players from that team," he said.
The only blemishes on Sedona's almost perfect 2003 season was a tie with Fountain Hills and a loss to Payson.
"They have won every other match or tournament they have had this year," Morse said.
The coach also anticipates that Globe, Fountain Hills, Snowflake and the Longhorns have a legitimate shot at wrestling the links title from the talented Scorpions.
"All of us can contend if we play well," he said. "There should be good parity in the state tournament."
The highlight of the East region shoot-out had to be the stellar first day play of junior Brandan Kelley.
On the par 71 Silver Creek Course, Kelley finished with a three-under-par 68.
"It was the best round he has ever shot in a competitive tournament and was done in 20 to 30 mph winds," Morse said. "The next closest scores that day were six strokes back --wo players at 74 -- and those weren't bad scores considering the windy conditions."
On the second day of the tournament, played on the par 70 Show Low Country Club course, Kelley tallied an 84. His two-day card of 152 earned him the individual East region championship.
Teammate Billy Bob Hoyt was region runner-up with a 155 (74 and 81). Kyle Kent tallied a 172 (84 and 88) to finish eighth in the field of 25 golfers.
In the "play five keep four scores format," Brad Meyock's 85 was used in the Longhorns first-day tally. An 88 turned in by Troy Marrs was calculated in the Longhorns' second-day score.
At the completion of the tournament's first nine holes, the battle for state honors appeared as if it was going to be between season long rivals Payson and Snowflake.
"We were tied at the turn," Morse said. On the back nine, the Longhorns shot 14 strokes better than the Lobos to take a 311-325 advantage into Saturday's play.
At the Show Low club, battling strong winds, Payson continued its domination of the tournament field finishing at 341. Snowflake's 354 dropped the Lobos into a third-place finish behind host Show Low.
The spring winds, which traditionally sweep through the White Mountains, made play on the second day a supreme challenge for all the players.
"The tight course layout with out of bounds on both side in 35 mph winds and 45 mph gusts, made for many penalty strokes," Morse said. "Our scores do not show well, but our guys were mentally tough and persevered."
At the conclusion of the tournament, the top 10 individual finishers, which included Kelley, Hoyt, Kent and Marrs, were named to the All-East Region team.
At Mount Graham
The Longhorns tuned up for the state tournament at the 27-hole Safford Invitational April 25 and 26 at the Mount Graham Golf Course. The field included 19 teams and 95 prep players.
With a 468, Globe played its way to the tournament championship. Runner-up Snowflake carded a 472.
Payson and Class 2A state championship favorite Northwest Community Christian tied for third. Both finished at 474, and a sudden death playoff was held in which the top four scorers from each team squared off against one another on the 409-yard No. 17 hole. The Longhorns played even par 4 on the hole but fell to fourth in the final standings after Northwest finished one-under.
Individually, Hoyt led the Longhorns with a 39 on the first day and a 69 on the second.
Kelley (36 and 74), Marrs (43 and 85) and Kent (44 and 86) trailed the team leader.
In the "play five keep four scores" format, John Rodriquez's 48 was tallied in the Longhorns first day card. On the second day, Meyock's 84 was kept and the 86 from Kent was discarded.
The individual tallies turned in by Hoyt and Kelley earned the Payson pair the tournament's gold and silver medals.
"This is the first time we have had a one-two finish at a major tournament of 16 teams or more," Morse said.
Morse praised Kelley for "playing very steady golf and showing good course management." The coach said Kelley's effort was his best two-day performance of the year.
Hoyt drew praise for his heady play in the second round.
"He was seven strokes in back of the leader and had an amazing run birdieing five out of his first six holes," Morse said.