Lady Longhorn basketball coach Rory Huff knows what it will take for his team to mold itself into a regional championship contender next season. "Athletes are made in the off season," he said. "How good our team is will depend on what the girls do in the off season."
For the players, the opportunities to improve their skills will be plentiful.
"We'll have camps, summer league, tournaments, open gym and several girls will be playing club ball," Huff said.
The coach predicts that if all his returning players buy into the program and enthusiastically participate, next year's team will be a good one.
"We're not losing anybody (to graduation) so we should be one of the teams to beat (in the Grand Canyon region)," he said.
With the entire varsity roster of 10 returning, Huff will have a crew seasoned by last season's Class 4A Grand Canyon regional title chase.
During the Lady Horns' inaugural 4A campaign, the team posted a 17-11 record to finish fourth in the region.
The regular-season showing earned the Lady Horns a home seed in the opening round of the Grand Canyon tournament Feb. 10.
After defeating Coconino twice during the regular season, the Lady Horns struggled offensively in a 48-37 loss to the Panthers.
The defeat in Wilson Dome put a premature end to the season and Lady Horn hopes of earning a berth into the state tournament.
"(The loss) was disappointing for all of us," Huff said. "We were hoping to stay in (the tournament) much longer."
The coach attributed the loss to poor shooting from both the free-throw line and the field.
From the line, Payson cashed in on only 11 of its 29 shots. When a team makes 38 percent of his free throw attempts as Payson did, a victory is not usually in the making.
Of the 40 two-point shots the team launched, only 10 (25 percent) were successful. From three-point land, Payson sunk just two of 10 attempts (20 percent).
Compare those shooting marks to the ones Payson posted in a 61-47 win over Coconino Jan. 20 (50 percent of free throws; 41 percent of their two-pointers; and 40 percent of three-pointers) and it's easy to see why the team came up short in its regional tournament bid.
When Huff opens the cupboard next fall, he won't find it empty. It'll be stocked with plenty of seasoned players, including Krystal McRae, Autumn Herrera, Kodi Kepp, Haylee Huff, and Danielle O'Haver.
McRae will return as the Lady Longhorns' leading scorer having posted a 9.4 ppg average last season. She also was the team's most accurate shooter, hitting about 46 percent of her two-point shot attempts. Because she was a low-post player who could also score in transition, McRae seldom ventured into three-point land.
The Lady Horns' long-range threat, O'Haver, made good on 31 of her team-leading 89 three-point shots, for about 35 percent.
From the free throw line, point guard Huff led the Lady Horns hitting 53 of her 78 (67.9 percent) attempts.
She also was the floor general dishing out an average of 4.4 assists per game.
Kepp, the defensive stalwart for Payson, gave up a promising soccer career at the onset of the season to play basketball. From her front line position, Kepp blocked 28 shots and corralled an average of 5.9 rebounds. She also was the team's second leading scorer (7.6 ppg.)
The team's rebounding leader, Owens, averaged 7.1 boards per game and contributed 5.9 ppg.
Next season with McRae, Owens and Kepp manning the low-post positions, the Lady Horns could have one of the most solid front lines in the region.
Junior Tanya Davis also will be a valuable veteran having played extensively in all 28 games this season.
The Lady Horns' youth movement includes sophomores Tracy Fitzpatrick and Kendra Francis as well as freshman Tori Wilbanks.
All three youngsters picked up valuable playing time this year. With another year of maturity, the trio could become top-notch players.
The team will celebrate the accomplishments of this season at the annual awards banquet, 7 p.m., Feb. 27, at Tiny's Restaurant. There, varsity letters will be given out and coach Huff will recognize the players chosen all-region in a voting of Grand Canyon coaches.
As a first-year member of the 4A conference, PHS players will find it much tougher to be named all-region than they did when Payson High was aligned in the 3A East.
In 4A, only 18 players are honored. Six are named first team, six are selected second team and six chosen honorable mention.
In 3A, 10 could be chosen both first and second team. Honorable mention selections were not limited.