With the regular season at an end, the Herculean task now facing the Longhorns boys' basketball team is to muster a pair of victories in Grand Canyon regional tournament play.
If the Horns can achieve that goal, the team will defy most all odds by earning a state tournament berth in the school's first year as a member of the 4A conference.
Traditionally, schools that move up a notch in student body size classifications play the role of league doormat for several seasons.
The Longhorns' state quest tips off at 7 p.m. this evening (Tuesday) against the homestanding Coconino Panthers. A win over the cats would propel the Horns into a second round showdown Feb. 13 in Walkup Skydome at Northern Arizona University. A second round triumph would ensure the Horns of a tournament third-place finish and a state berth.
Last season when the Longhorns were members of the 3A conference East region, four teams earned berths to the state tournament.
In 4A competition, however, only three qualifiers advance to the state showdown.
The Longhorns (9-17) open regional tournament play as the regular season sixth-place finisher. Coconino advances as the Grand Canyon bronze medalist.
During the regular season, the Panthers defeated Payson both in Flagstaff and Wilson Dome.
Both games, however, were hotly contested. In the first meeting, Coconino survived 68-62. In the second, the Panthers narrowly averted an upset 54-50.
Coach Mike Loutzenheiser's game plan was different in each game. In the first loss, the coach had his troops running and gunning with the talented Panther crew. On defense, the Horns opted to press and try to force errors.
The scheme had limited success.
During the second loss, the Horns turned to a more deliberate slow down offensive plan. On defense, the team relied mostly on a zone.
Because the Panthers obviously are more athletic than the Longhorns, Loutzenheiser's strategy this evening will be for the slow-down approach.
"We might walk it up and try to get someone to knock down the jump shot," he said. "If we can do that, it should stop them from doubling and tripling (Mike) Barr."
Defensively, Loutzenheiser will have his troops in a 1-3-1 zone that he hopes will limit Coconino to just one shot.
"They crash the offensive boards and get a lot of points that way," Loutzenheiser said. "If we give them just one shot, we have a chance (of winning)."
Season ends with one-point win
The Longhorns wrapped up the regular season Feb. 5 in Wilson Dome with a 49-48 win over Flagstaff Sinagua. The game was originally scheduled to be played Feb. 3 but was postponed due to hazardous winter driving conditions on Northern Arizona roads.
In edging the Mustangs, Payson took a 33-25 halftime lead only to see the cushion quickly evaporate in the third quarter when Barr was relegated to the bench with foul trouble.
Without their 6-foot-7-inch, 235-pound center in the game, Payson scored only a trio of points and those came late in the period with Kyle Hubbard sunk a three-pointer.
Leading only 38-36 early in the fourth quarter, Payson battled to retain a lead before surviving by a single point. Despite Barr's foul troubles, he led the team offensively with 19 points. Hubbard contributed seven and Darren Daniels had six.
Donnie Wilbanks and Brian Schwind tallied five each.
The highlight of the pregame activities was a booster award given out to longtime PHS basketball fan Marty McDaniel. In inaugurating the award, Loutzenheiser said he wanted to acknowledge people in the community who have long supported the boys basketball teams.
"Marty has been coming to the games since I played (1985 to 87)," Loutzenheiser said.
After receiving the award, McDaniel received a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd.
A day prior to the win over Sinagua, also in Wilson Dome, the Longhorns absorbed a 64-55 thumping from the Mingus Marauders.
For Mingus, the win must have been an omen of things to come.
In the Marauders' final regular season game two days later, the team defeated state-second ranked and Grand Canyon region champion Page.
The Marauders victory ended the Sand Devils 30-plus game region winning streak.
"That was a huge upset," Loutzenheiser said.
In Payson's loss to Mingus, the Horns received only five points from Barr who was double and triple teamed most of the evening. Wilbanks and Cort Connolly led the Longhorns with 11 points each. Hubbard finished with 10 and Schwind had seven.