The buzz in the Rim country sports scene most of 2003 was Payson High School's move to the 4A conference from 3A where the school had resided since 1982. Coaches, students, teachers and fans questioned whether a small town school like Payson could be successful competing in the 4A conference that housed powerhouses like Scottsdale Chaparral and Tucson Sunnyside.
The questions were answered when the Longhorn football team finished the season 8-2 and the golf team won the Grand Canyon region championship.
The Lady Longhorn volleyball team performed well, but failed to reach the final four at the regular season-ending region tournament.
About the only winter sports team that suffered from the school's move to the 4A ranks was the boys cross country team. Although the squad sported its most talented runners in school history, the Horns were denied a state berth when the team finished fourth in the region tournament. As it turned out, the Grand Canyon region was the most powerful in the state regardless of school size.
PHS athletic director Dave Bradley and most winter sports coaches said they were satisfied with the way Payson teams competed during the school's first year in 4A.
But will Payson remain in 4A?
School enrollment has dropped this year below the 4A cutoff of 960 students. If enrollment does not increase before the next AIA realignment in the spring of 2004, Payson could find itself once again a member of the 3A conference.
Enjoy these highlights of the 2003 year in sports.
Jan. 10 -- Payson High School senior Zack Lee (152 pounds) was named the outstanding wrestler at the Dave Work Memorial Wrestling tournament in Cottonwood.
Jan. 21 -- Longhorn basketball team that once was stumbling along with a 5-5 record, improved to 12-5 and held down the top slot in the East region standings with a 4-0 mark.
Feb. 11 -- When the rock group Queen belted out "We are the Champions," they weren't directing it towards the Payson High School boys basketball team. But they could have -- the Longhorns became champions. The team won the prestigious East region title with a regular season-ending 50-45 victory over Show Low.
Feb. 14 -- Refusing to be swayed by the Show Low Cougar's No. 1 state ranking, the Payson Longhorns wrestled their way to East region regular season and tournament championships. The tournament title was earned Feb. 8 in Show Low where Payson accumulated 215 points to easily outdistance the runner-up Cougars (190).
Feb. 18 -- The Longhorn wrestling team's bid to win its 11th state championship in the past 23 years came up short. The Horns finished second in the 3A state tournament behind longtime East region rival and defending state champion Show Low.
Feb. 21 -- The Lady Longhorn basketball team was eliminated from the state tournament by a second round 81-65 loss to North region champion Monument Valley.
March 14 -- The 2003 Arizona Coaches Association 1A-3A North vs. South All-Star basketball game showcased the talents of Payson High School senior Nick Cassuto and coach Mike Loutzenheiser. The two were chosen to participate in the annual clash at a meeting of ACA members at Mesa Dobson High school.
March 21 -- After a so-so 2-3 showing in the season-opening Mohave Thunderbird Tournament, the Longhorn baseball team rebounded to finish 5-0 at the Copper Classic baseball tournament.
March 28 -- In her first year at the helm of the Lady Horn basketball program, Krystal Garvin earned East region "Coach of the Year" honors. Garvin unanimously received the citation over Round Valley High School veteran coach Chris Matthews, whose team won both the East and state championships.
April 11 -- Senior Chris Donaldson's two first-place finishes paved the way for the Longhorn track and field teams' victories over East rivals Snowflake, Round Valley and Blue Ridge.
April 22 -- After two successful years leading the Payson High School wrestling program, coach Dave LaMotte resigned.
April 29 --he 2003 Payson-Pine Little League season got off to a rousing start on the Rumsey Park ballfield.
May 6 --In front of a spirited and festive crowd of Lady Longhorns fans who had earlier enjoyed a deep-pit barbecue dinner, Lady Horn softball team chalked up a crucial 5-2 victory over rival Show Low. With the win, Payson wrapped up the season as East region runner-ups.
May 9 -- Payson High School's heralded golf team advanced to the Class 3A state tournament as East region champion and one of the favorites to claim the state crown.
May 16 -- The Payson High School football coaching baton was passed from Steve Saban to Jerry Rhoades. After two years at the helm of the PHS program, Saban's contract was not renewed. Rhoades was named his replacement.
May 20 -- The Class 3A state meet scorecard of 618 turned in by the Longhorn golf team May 13 and 14 would have been good enough to win the state championship in past years. But on the par 72 Johnson Ranch course in Queen Creek, the Horns had to settle for runner-up honors behind Sedona, which set a state team mark of 592.
June 10 -- Three former Payson High School soccer standouts showcased their skills at the Arizona Coaches Association All-Star Soccer match May 21 at Casa Grande High School. Travis Sanders, Andrew Karlowski and Ryan Peters participated in the Class 1A-4A team that dropped a 6-4 decision to the 5A stars.
June 20 -- The Tonto Apache Track and Field team was well represented at the Junior Olympic Region 10 championships at Glendale Community College. Of the 16 athletes on the Tonto Apache roster, eight qualified for the finals by finishing among the top three at the Arizona State championships.
June 27 -- A pristine area near Black Canyon Lake was renovated, thanks to a day-long joint effort of the Arizona Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, the Mogollon Sporting Association and 10 Payson High School wrestlers.
July 8 -- Fueled by the scoring of Efren Agruello and heady play from the entire lineup, Payson played its way to a second-place finish in the Independence Day Men's 35-years-and-over Soccer Tournament.
July 11 --he highlight of the Rim country sports scene in early July was the presence of the Arizona Diamondbacks. No, it wasn't superstars Luiz Gonzales, Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling. Instead, it was a coaching staff made up of former players hand picked by the professional baseball organization to teach the fundamentals of the game to youngsters enrolled in the Diamondback training camp.
July 18 -- The Payson Major Division (11-12-years-old) All-Stars have etched their names into the record book as the first Rim country baseball team to qualify for the Arizona State Little League tournament.
July 25 -- Rim country senior track and field stalwart Tom Cooka ran and threw his way to three gold medals and a silver at the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games July 17 to 20 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
July 29 -- The hopes of the Payson Little League Major All-Stars were dashed Saturday when the team barely missed qualifying for the state tournament's final four. The team's 3-3 record was two wins shy of what it needed to make the championships.
Aug. 12 -- Local bass fishing pro Mark Kile turned in an impressive sixth-place finish at the CITGO Bassmasters Classic on the Louisiana Delta near New Orleans. For his showing in what is considered the grand daddy of all fishing tournaments, Kile pocketed $20,000 in prize money.
Aug. 19 -- Mother Nature pulled a cruel trick on Arizona State University that sent the Sun Devil football team scurrying to Rumsey Park and local residents jumping for joy. Monsoon rains forced the Sun Devils to abandon their preseason practice plans at Camp Tontozona. ASU opted to practice on the all-weather playing surface at Rumsey Park. After conducting most of their eight-day preseason practice sessions at Rumsey, the 22nd nationally ranked ASU Sun Devils eagerly returned to Camp Tontozona.
Sept. 2 -- Proof that the Payson Longhorns can compete successfully in the 4A conference was the 39-12 football season-opening drubbing of Glendale Cortez. In front of a vocal band of Longhorn supporters that filled PHS stadium to capacity, the young Rim country gridders demoralized a Cortez team that outweighed Payson's front line by more than 40 pounds per player.
Sept. 19 -- By outperforming some of the biggest names in the world of professional bass fishing, Clifford Pirch netted fifth-place in the prestigious WON Bass Miller High Life U.S. Open tournament Sept. 8 to 10 at Lake Mead. For his performance, Pirch cashed a check for $12,500 -- one of the biggest payoffs of his professional career.
Sept. 26 -- The solution to finding about $160,000 it would take to finally complete the Payson High School Stadium Project probably rests with the Credit for Kids tax program. According to Payson High School athletic director Dave Bradley, the project could be completed if enough Credit for Kids tax donations are ear-marked for the stadium.
Oct. 7 -- The hard-charging Longhorns capped homecoming week on PHS field with an emotional 10-7 victory over Pinnacle. The victory improved the Horns record to 5-0 and catapulted the team into 10th place in the Class 4A state rankings.
Oct. 14 -- In their first tournament as a bass fishing team,
Clifford Pirch and Andy Pederson hooked up to win first place at the AllStar Bass Team Tournament at Roosevelt Lake.
Oct. 26 -- The road to a team berth in the 4A state cross country tournament will be a rocky one for the Payson Longhorns. The squad sports probably the most talented roster it has featured in the 10-year history of the program. But,the Grand Canyon region -- of which Payson is a member -- has proven all season long to be the most competitive in the state.
Oct. 31 -- A Herculean effort that left Lady Longhorn volleyball coach Chris Schwind beaming with pride came up three points short of earning Payson a berth in the 4A Grand Canyon regional final four. In the opening round of the regional tournament in Flagstaff, the Lady Horns saw their bid for a seed in the final four swept away in a 15-12 loss to Coconino.
Nov. 4 -- The Longhorn golf team proved that a first-year member of the 4A ranks could excel by winning the Grand Canyon region championship.
Nov. 14 -- Billy Bob Hoyt joined the ranks of a select group of PHS graduates who have earned Division I athletic scholarships. Hoyt accepted the University of Hawaii's golf scholarship offer.
Dec. 2 -- The elimination of physical education in Payson elementary schools doesn't mean physical fitness has been left out of the curriculum in Wayne Gorry's Julia Randall Elementary School fourth-grade class. After more than 10 weeks of training, 19 of the 21 students in his class participated in the Turkey Trot 5K run.
Dec. 12 -- Randy Wilcox's emotions were pushed to the limits in the championship round of the Higley soccer tournament. During two regulation halves, three overtimes, a shoot-out and sudden death, the Lady Horns came up a single kick short of winning the title.
Dec. 19 -- Three Rim Country Middle School athletes wrestled their way to White Mountain League championships. Nick Goodman (112), Mark McCarty (142) and Steel Armstrong (heavyweight) claimed titles by compiling 3-0 records at the WML championships in Heber.
Dec. 23 -- A depleted roster spelled the demise of the Payson Longhorns in the championship round of the Rim Country Duals wrestling tournament. Pitted against powerful Gilbert Highland in Wilson Dome, the Longhorns succumbed in the finale 43-39.