Payson High School's return to the Class 3A East region after spending two years in the 4A Grand Canyon ranks has Longhorn boys soccer coach Roger Wholly turning cartwheels.
Well, maybe not cartwheels, but at least he's beaming a huge grin.
"I am so much happier to be back with our old rivals," he said.
Wholly is happy to return to playing soccer in the fall; the 4A division competes throughout the winter.
Which means playing conditions will be much more conducive for outdoor sports.
Several late-season 4A GCR games last year in Flagstaff were snowed out and playoff games had to be moved to the lower elevation of Mingus High School in Cottonwood.
Also, winter travel in buses, during Payson's stay in the 4A conference, often turned hazardous. Highways linking Payson, Flagstaff, Page and Chinle -- all 4A GCR schools -- often were snowy and icy.
A PHS basketball team, returning from a 12-hour, round trip to Chinle, almost had to bed down overnight at Heber Mogollon High School because Highway 260 was about to be closed down by snow and ice.
Also, in 3A, Payson will also have the opportunity to renew the rivalries the school built during its many seasons, from 1982 to 2002, in the conference.
Some athletes and coaches who were around when Payson made the switch three years ago from 3A to 4A have murmured that playing teams like Flagstaff Sinagua or Coconino didn't have the same intensity of going toe-to-toe against longtime rivals like Snowflake, Blue Ridge and Show Low.
"We grew up playing those schools, beating them was always fun," former PHS basketball and football player Mike Loutzenheiser said.
Wholly said one of the team's goals is "to beat our old friends Show Low and Blue Ridge."
In returning to 3A soccer, Wholly can call upon a group he calls "very strong and mature."
It's a roster loaded with talented returning letter-winners.
The Horns lost two players to graduation last spring, and of the 22 players out for the team, 12 are veterans.
Among them is senior Patrick Karlowski who was a 4A all-state player last season, a starter since he was a freshmen and plays in the offseason on a Mesa-based club team.
Karlowski, however, is sidelined with a knee injury.
While watching a midweek early-morning practice at Rumsey Park, Karlowski said sitting out was the toughest ordeal he's had to deal with in a soccer career that dates back to elementary school.
"It's no fun, I want to play," he said. "I hope I can be back in time for the (Round Valley) tournament (Sept. 2 and 3). But, I probably won't play against Blue Ridge (Aug. 31 at Rumsey)."
Without Karlowski in the lineup, Wholly will look to four other award-winning players -- Trent Hubbard, Shane Tuer, Eric Lammers and Nate Doyle -- to fill the void.
In addition to Doyle playing soccer, he'll also place kick for the PHS football team.
In preseason practices, Wholly tapped Noel Hernandez and Lammers as his team captains and welcomed senior Justin Shuman -- a basketball and golf team member -- to his first year of soccer.
The team also has two transfers, Aaron Loeffler of Wisconsin and former Casa Grande resident Stephen Liponi on the roster.
Freshmen vying for playing time include Joey Sprinkle, Brandon Moratti, Donovan Swanson, Nic Creighton, Shane Crisp and Dakoda Wholly, the coach's son.
Coach Wholly said it was too early in the season to know if any of the first year players could contribute.
Payson will not field a jayvee or freshmen team this year due to a lack of numbers.
Fans will have the opportunity to preview the newest edition of the Longhorn soccer team at 2 p.m. Aug. 27 in a controlled scrimmage against Sedona. Because it is a scrimmage only, no score is kept and individual statistics are not tabulated.
Among the highlights of the season will be the inaugural Pioneer Title Invitational Sept. 23 and 24 at Rumsey. Currently five teams have entered.
"Hopefully, it will become an annual event," Wholly said.
Following the season opener Aug. 31 against Blue Ridge, the Horns will play six home games before wrapping up the regular season Oct. 25 in Lakeside-Pinetop against the Yellow Jackets.
(Schedules for all PHS sports, including soccer, can be found in the Aug. 16 edition of the Payson Roundup.)