Lady Longhorn volleyball coach Arnold Stonebrink might have shed a tear or two when he waved goodbye to seven seniors at graduation ceremonies last spring.
The departed players -- Haylee Huff, Britney Owens, Rikki Ray, Retosha Marshall, Tina Jackson, Brandi Whomble and Celena DeSchaaf -- were the heart and soul of the team for two seasons.
Stonebrink said replacing those players will be difficult, but he remains optimistic.
"I'm very excited about the season, I believe our girls have a good shot at being competitive in the region and making it to state," he said. "It will be a tough road, but the girls eagerly anticipate the challenge."
In rebuilding the 2005 Lady Horns, Stonebrink has three returning letter-winners -- Sarah Donovan, Brooke Cannon and Jadyn Walden -- to use as a foundation.
The trio, he said, must step up and provide leadership for the newcomers.
The team did receive an unexpected boost when senior Brittany Moore transferred to PHS from Safford.
"She will play our ‘libero,' a strictly back-row position player who can sub for everyone in the game and play 80-90 percent of the game," Stonebrink said.
Also in the lineup will be outside hitter Tori Wilbanks, who proved to be a strong hitter and blocker in preseason drills.
In Stonebrink's offensive schemes, the Lady Horns will show a 5-1 formation in which Cannon sets and basically runs the team on the floor.
"I believe she will have a standout year," Stonebrink said.
Last year as a sophomore, Cannon started and picked up plenty of valuable playing time.
Defensively, Moore -- playing libero -- will be the back-row leader.
"She will really solidify our digging and passing," Stonebrink said.
Stonebrink said offensive and defensive success lies in the team's ability to stay strong.
"(The key is not) to wilt under pressure in close games against tough opponents, but instead elevate our level of play," Stonebrink said.
In summer league tournaments, the Lady Horns showed a propensity to fade in close games.
"Especially against Miami, we weren't able to pull (the wins) out; we would either win big or lose a close game," the coach said.
Stonebrink said the answer to staying focused could be to play with the same intensity in practice as in competition.
The coach welcomes PHS' realignment to the 3A East region from the 4A Grand Canyon, where the school spent two years.
"It's good to renew the old rivalries," he said. "The East has some terrific volleyball programs, Snowflake, Blue Ridge and Round Valley will be tough."
Outside the region, Stonebrink has tabbed Ganado, Safford and Fountain Hills to be the teams to beat.
Among the underclassmen, Stonebrink is beaming over the promise the first year players have shown.
"The freshmen will be terrific, they have several great athletes who are naturals," the coach said. "The jayvees will be very competitive and feature some players who have progressed nicely in the program."
The Lady Horns tip off the season tonight, Tuesday, Aug. 30 in Globe. Game times are 4 (freshmen) 5 (jayvee) and 6 p.m. (varsity).
The team makes its home debut Sept. 2 and 3 at the 18-team Payson Invitational Tournament. The tournament format will consist of three pools of six teams each. During the first day, all teams each pool will play one another a round robin.
The top three teams in each pool will advance to a championship tournament on the second day. The bottom three finishers will advance to a consolation tournament.
Before the second-day begins, however, the top three finishers in each pool will play round robins.
The results of those games will be used to seed the teams into the championship and consolation double-elimination tournaments.
Blue Ridge returns to the fray as the defending championship, having nipped Flagstaff for the crown in 2004. The Lady Horns are the defending consolation championships.
Stonebrink has called the tournament one of the highlights of the season because it has attracted the best teams in the state, including 1A state champ Joseph City, 1A state runner-up Mogollon and 3A state runner-up Ganado.
"Thirteen of the 18 teams entered in the tournament went to state last year," Stonebrink said.
There is no admission charge to the tournament.