Longhorn sports teams have wrapped up their first year in the 4A conference with mixed results.
A trio of squads --olf, boys track and wrestling -- were able to win regional championships but other programs struggled with the shift to big school competition.
After spending more than two decades in the small school 3A conference, Payson was sent packing to 4A when school began last fall. The change was necessitated by the school's increasing enrollment.
The cut off for 3A schools is 950 students. When the Arizona Interscholastic Association checked enrollment figures Oct. 1, 2002, PHS had 967 students. The enrollment has since declined to its current 850 students --aking it the smallest school in 4A. Some Valley 4A schools have more than 1,600 students.
Lady Longhorn volleyball coach Chris Schwind believes schools with larger student bodies have a definite advantage.
"The 4A schools have many more athletes to choose from and many of their athletes specialize and play club sports," she said. "The biggest difference I saw in volleyball and watching my son's basketball and track teams is the huge difference at state. The teams and individuals from the big (4A) schools are way ahead of our athletes."
Track and cross country coach Chuck Hardt agrees.
"We need more athletes. We have to get some depth to compete at a higher level," he said. "All of our programs are drawing from 850 kids, bigger 4A schools draw from a pool of 1,600 kids."
Hardt's track teams, however, were very successful. The boys squad won the regional championship and the girls were third.
Once the teams reached state, however, they struggled against Valley and Tucson powerhouses.
The cross-country teams were among the Horn programs to feel the greatest pressure of competing against larger schools.
"Last fall was the first time in the history of the program that girls teams didn't make it to state," Hardt said. "The Grand Canyon region is traditionally the most dominate in the state."
The only PHS athletes who qualified for the state championship meet were Jenny Cohen and Tanner Morgan.
Larger 4A sends three qualifiers
Another huge obstacle the Longhorns faced as a 4A school was the number of qualifying teams each region sends to state.
In the 3A conference, each region qualifies four teams for the state tournament. Because 4A has many more member schools, each region sends just three teams.
Sending fewer teams to state dealt a huge blow to the Lady Horn cross country team that finished fourth in the region just one-point out of third and the final qualifying spot.
"There were some girls shedding some tears. They were very disappointed," Hardt said.
The PHS golf team found life in the Grand Canyon region to be softer than it was in the 3A East.
"Any of the good East teams could win the Grand Canyon region," coach Bret Morse said last fall.
But when the Horns reached the state tournament Nov. 5 and 6, the players and coach found the Valley schools to be far superior.
In fact, Morse said the 4A conference was actually more competitive than 5A. The Horns eventually had to settle for an eighth-place finish despite having on their roster three players -- Billy Bob Hoyt, Brandan Kelley and Troy Marrs -- who next season will be playing on the college level.
Like the golf team, Longhorn wrestlers found the going smooth on the way to the Grand Canyon title, but a rocky road to state.
The wrestling team, a perennial 3A state champion, fell to fifth at the 4A state meet Feb. 12 to 14 in Phoenix.
For the boys and girls soccer teams, PHS's move to 4A meant a change in seasons. While in 3A, soccer was played in the fall. In 4A, soccer is contested during the winter sports season.
"That was a huge difference," Lady Horn coach Randy Wilcox said.
Being a 4A school also meant much stiffer competition. Both teams struggled in the Grand Canyon region and were thoroughly outmanned in the conference.
"Those Valley schools like Pinnacle have athletes who play year-round," Wilcox said. "We had no chance against them."
In football, it was a tough call to assess the results of the move to 4A. Although the team compiled an 8-2 record, it did not earn a berth in the state tournament because it didn't accumulate enough power points.
In 4A, teams are seeded into state based on wins and strength of schedule. The Horn schedule simply didn't have enough quality opponents to earn PHS a state seed.
Being a 4A school also meant less individual recognition for the players especially in basketball.
"It was really tough to make the teams," coach Rory Huff said, following the selection of the all-region girls basketball team.
The first team had several seniors who will be going (university) Division 1 next year."
Longhorns' boys coach Mike Loutzenheiser agreed.
"It is very difficult to be chosen (all region) because they only took six first teamers, six second teamers and seven honorable mention," he said.
When PHS was in the 3A conference, 10 players were named to each all-region team.
"We chose 30 in 3A, in 4A only 19 are taken," Loutzenheiser said.
The bottom line
So, what does the future hold for Payson High? Will it remain a 4A team in the next AIA realignment or will the Horns fall to 3A?
Athletic director Dave Bradley says school enrollment will probably exceed the 950-cut off mark when enrollment checks are made next fall. He anticipates Payson will remain 4A.
But the good news for the Longhorns is that state athletic directors are considering breaking up the 4A conference into big-school and small-school divisions.
"Each division would have about 30 schools. It would be more like 3A (sizes)," Bradley said.
If the revision does occur, Payson could find itself in an East Valley league along with Apache Junction, Arcadia, Tempe and a few 3A schools that are expected to move up to 4A in a year.
Student body enrollment and the prospect of splitting the 4A conference are keys to the Longhorns' future.