Veteran Payson High School baseball coach Teddy Pettet and his players are staring at two huge obstacles.
The first hurdle is to find replacements for eight starters who graduated last spring. Among the eight were offensive leaders Waylon Pettet and Nate Perna. Travis Sanders, Ty Brunson, Jeremy Heairet, Taylor Walden and Mike Hansen also graduated.
The second: finding a way to play competitively as a first-year member of the Grand Canyon region 4A conference.
The starters whom Pettet must replace formed the nucleus of last year's team that compiled an 18-7 record, finished second in the 3A East region (7-3) and was fifth-ranked in the state.
The toughest player in that group to find a fill-in for might be Heairet.
Last year, he was the Longhorns ace pitcher and one of the team's better hitters. Heairet is now playing baseball in Australia, hoping for a shot at a career in professional baseball.
If there is a pitcher capable of taking up the slack created by the loss of Heairet, it could be senior Ashton Shewey. He returns to the team with plenty of hurling experience having pitched on an Arizona all-star team during the off-season.
As good as Shewey could be, the team will need more than one pitcher to be successful in the big school conference.
Ricky Young, a returning letter winner, could become the No. 2 pitcher on the Longhorn staff. Donnie Wilbanks and Kyle Sachak both have junior varsity experience and are expected to add depth to the roster. Dustin Hacker, a transfer from Colorado, also is in the pitching mix, as is Matt Behrens.
In preseason practices, Pettet said he was impressed with the hurling crew.
"We have pretty decent pitching and I believe we will play pretty good defense," he said. "If that holds true for us, we will be in a lot of games and have the opportunity to win a few more than we lose."
The real question for the Longhorns could be the offense.
Last year, Pettet and Perna were .400 hitters and Walden had the strength to rip booming home runs.
"I don't think we have the sticks we had," Pettet said. "We will probably have to play a little more small ball and do some things to create pressure on the defense to score."
When the Longhorn D takes the field, it will be a relatively inexperienced group that will be forced to learn under fire. None of the returning defenders, except Ronnie Maksymowski, has extensive varsity playing expedience.
Among the candidates for catcher are Tyler Williams, Matt Levac and Shewey, if needed.
In the trio, Williams has the experience of having played on an Arizona all-star team that traveled last summer to Australia. He's also got plenty of athletic experience having been the starting fullback on the football team the past two seasons. His abilities and his outstanding attitude make him a candidate to contribute somewhere on the team. If not at catcher, he could play in the infield, Pettet said.
At first base, Ryan Wilcox, Wilbanks and Shewey -- when he's not pitching -- are battling for playing time.
Second base prospects include Manny Arguello, Kyle Fogarty and Hacker.
At shortstop, Maksymowski is being penciled into the starting lineup. Hacker also could see playing time there.
Ricky Young, Kyle Sachak and Wilbanks are among the players hoping to hold down the hot corner.
Outfield candidates include Trevor LaHaye, Mark McRae, Nick DeGroot, Greg Barnes, Young, Fogarty and Arguello.
In that crew, McRae was a teammate of Williams on the all-star team that competed Down Under.
Ryan Thiel, maybe the best all-around athlete on the team, also is an outfield prospect. However, he will be sidelined for a minimum of six weeks, recuperating from a shoulder injury incurred in a snowboarding accident.
Playing in the big school conference
As a member of the Grand Canyon region, the Longhorns will be pitted against schools that have much bigger student bodies to draw from.
"Every 4A team will have the advantage of pulling players from a student body of 1,100 to 1,850 kids," Pettet said. "We pull from a student population of about 900."
Because of the larger school size, Pettet anticipates 4A pitching will be much tougher than what the Longhorns faced when PHS was in the 3A conference.
The best team in the league, he predicts, will be the Mingus Marauders.
"They are always the front runner," he said "The have had strong teams for many years and I don't see that changing this season."
Although the Horns are facing a huge challenge moving to the larger conference, Pettet and his players are confident they can compete successfully.
"The kids and I are excited about the challenge of moving up to 4A," he said. "The have responded with a very positive attitude toward making a run at winning the region and moving on from there."
As a member of the 4A conference, the Longhorns will find it tougher to earn a slot in the state tournament than was the challenge in 3A.
In the 3A East, four of six teams earned berths to state.
In 4A, only three of seven teams advance to state.
"Also there is a region tournament at the end (of the regular season) to determine the teams that actually represent the region in the state tournament," Pettet said.
The No. 1 team automatically goes to state, but second and third have to win playoff games to advance.
The post-season tournament challenge is "definitely a different scenario than we have ever been exposed to," Pettet said.
The tournament is one that Pettet supports.
"I pushed for it last year in the 3A East but the AD's refused it," he said.
The Longhorns were to play host to the Winslow Bulldogs Feb. 23 in a preseason scrimmage. Due to wet playing conditions on the PHS field, the scrimmage was canceled and will not be replayed.
The Horns officially open the season March 3 at the Mohave Tournament to be played in Laughlin, Nev. and Bullhead City.