With first-year head coach Rory Huff now calling the shots, Lady Longhorn basketball players are primed for a run at a first-ever appearance in the state tournament's final four.
"Our team goal is to play in America West Arena," Huff said.
The arena, which is the home of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, is the site for state tournament final four games for high schools of all size classifications, 1A through 5A.
In past seasons, the Lady Longhorns have fielded potent teams that appeared to have the talent to reach the final four. But each Lady Longhorn state run has ended on a disappointing note with a loss in the quarterfinals usually at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Although Huff is a rookie varsity head coach, he is no stranger to Rim country sports.
His experience includes three years as the junior varsity Lady Longhorn basketball coach, one season at the helm of the eighth-grade boys basketball program and one as the Rim Country Middle School eighth-grade football coach.
He also coached three seasons in Payson youth football and basketball programs.
Huff's coaching career began in 1983 in Montana. There, he coached eighth-grade, freshmen and junior varsity boys and girls soccer and basketball.
During his high school years in Montana, he played both football and basketball. He also played football at Eastern Montana University where he graduated with a degree in education. Before moving to Payson, he was a cattle rancher in Montana.
In Payson, Huff is a real estate agent.
One of the coach's biggest challenges this year will be to replace Ashley Herrera, Trista Carlton and Laura Crabtree. The trio, all stalwarts on last year's team coached by Crystal Garvin, graduated last spring.
Although the three will be tough to replace, Huff did not inherit an empty cupboard from Garvin who resigned both her coaching and teaching position and moved to Higley.
Among the returning letter winners are Autumn Herrera, Tanya Davis, Krystal McRae, Kodi Kepp, Britney Owens and the coach's daughter, Haylee Huff.
In the crew, coach Huff has a solid floor leader in his daughter who started at point guard last season and led the team in assists. She's proven to be a capable ball handler and a heady floor general.
In the band of returners, Davis might be the spark plug the coach is searching for. Last season as a sophomore, she built a reputation as a fiery player who wasn't shy about diving for loose balls or scrambling for rebounds. If Davis can improve her three-point shooting, she'll become an outside threat tough for opponents to defend. Autumn Herrera returns as a proven scorer with the potential to reap post season honors.
McRae, Kepp and Owens bring to the table the ability to battle down low for easy shots, rebound and defend the basket.
Huff also has at his disposal three sophomores and a senior up from last year's junior varsity team. The second-year players include Tracy Fitzpatrick, Kendra Francis and Danielle O'Haver. Newcomer Denise Nottingham is a senior who could have an impact on the varsity.
As last year's JV coach, Huff has had few early season problems installing his system and expectations.
During preseason, Huff has focused on installing a motion offense in which players are taught to move without the ball and work for open shots. Defensively, Huff will use a man-to-man scheme and a 1-2-2 zone.
Fans shouldn't be surprised if they also see the Lady Horns turn to pressure type defenses including half and full court presses.
Although Huff has taken the PHS summer team to camps and tournaments in the northland, he's unsure of which teams will be favorites to win the 4A Grand Canyon region title.
"It's all an unknown," he said. "But we feel like we can be in the top four."
His coaching philosophy will center on building a strong work ethic in both the returning and new varsity players.
"I believe hard work brings about good luck," he said. "I want the girls to have fun, but learn and work hard."
In assessing the team, the coach describes the players "as a great bunch of girls who will be a lot of fun to watch."
"I hope the community will come out and support as we are planning on a great year," he said.
The Lady Horns open the season at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 21 in Wilson dome against Phoenix Christian. The clash will be a controlled scrimmage in which no score will be recorded.