Second-year Lady Longhorn soccer coach Joe Schmidt faces the herculean task of finding replacements for 10 standouts who led last season's squad to the Class 4A state tournament.
That will be a huge challenge since the team lost seven players to graduation, one budding star moved away and another two players are sidelined with injuries.
Probably the toughest shoes Schmidt must fill are those of Lauren Stewert, who was being counted on to be a team leader after earning 4A Grand Canyon All-Region first team honors last season.
Stewert -- also a cross country and track team member -- moved to Georgia before school started.
Schmidt must also find a replacement for All-GCR second-team member Jessica Coleman, who graduated last spring and now plays at Paradise Valley Community College.
All-GCR honorable mention team member Kelsea Palace also graduated with the class of 2005.
Schmidt does have on his roster what he calls "strong, experienced players" in returning letter-winners Michelle Wing, Ciara Wholly and Shanna Coleman. During preseason practices, the trio was elected, by their teammates, to be team captains.
Wing is expected to play forward, Wholly -- the Lady Horns' lone senior -- will man the midfield position, and Coleman line up at sweeper.
Other letter-winners Schmidt can call upon include Danielle Dillon, Janet Echols and Jamie Bilyk.
The coach also has several newcomers who could step up and become starters.
"After missing a year, Hannah Lee will play stopper and Kirsha Wholly has emerged as a heads-up passer and shooter," Schmidt said. "Katie Calhoun will take over as goalie."
The coach also cited sophomores Aubrey Laird, Karina Haught and Panda Stackhouse as promising players with both athleticism and speed.
"They will all contribute when they learn the game," he said.
On the freshman front, six newcomers have turned out, but they might be relegated to the junior varsity team.
"Playing there will help them get some experience," Schmidt said.
Focusing on fundamentals
The challenge of coaching a varsity team made up of underclassmen has Schmidt scrambling to teach the basics.
"We are working hard on individual skills with the ball, communication and recognizing opportunities during the flow of play." he said. "But we do have some strength in our defense -- we have a couple of very fast wings and forwards."
In Schmidt's 4-4-2 set, the wings must be mobile and the defenders able to set plays and join the offensive attack.
The coach anticipates the Lady Horns will play offside traps once the defense becomes more cohesive.
The key to his schemes, Schmidt said, is "keeping pressure on the ball, controlling the opponent's set plays and team defense."
A real plus for the coach's style of play has been the tip-top physical condition of the players.
"We can wear some teams down this year," Schmidt said.
If the young players come together as a team, the coach anticipates Payson has the talent to earn a berth in the Class 3A state tournament.
"My goal is (for the players) to gain skill and momentum as the season progresses so that we can play well (at state) and get past the first round," he said. "This team has good chemistry and support each other.
Payson High School's return to the 3A East after spending two seasons in the 4A Grand Canyon region is being applauded by Schmidt.
"I am pleased with the move, we have more history and connection with 3A," he said. "However, we play whoever shows up. If we were still in 4A, the girls would rise to that level and earn the opposing teams' respect."
The move will result in the Lady Horns enjoying a bit more pleasant playing conditions.
In 4A, soccer is played during the winter sports season, which means playing in snowy, cold conditions at the three 4A Flagstaff high schools.
In 3A, soccer is played in the mild fall season when weather conditions are much more favorable to outdoor sports.
As a 3A East member, however, the Lady Horns will be pitted head-to-head against defending state champion Blue Ridge and region tough guys Show Low and St. Johns.
Fans will have the opportunity to preview the Lady Horns at noon Aug. 27 on the Rumsey Park multipurpose field against Sedona.
The season tips off in earnest at 4 p.m. (jayvee) and 6 p.m. (varsity) at Rumsey against Blue Ridge on Aug. 30.