An eight-day respite from the rigors of high school basketball ended Dec. 29 for a Longhorn boys basketball team that in 2005 compiled a 7-6 record.
The team resumed practices yesterday in preparation for upcoming East region showdowns against Holbrook (Jan. 4, 2006) and Snowflake (Jan. 7, 2006).
Both games will be played in Wilson dome.
In past seasons, Snowflake would be the team being touted a championship contender, but this year, Holbrook appears to have the talent to make a run at the East title.
The Roadrunners proved they are primed and ready for region play by playing their way to the championship of the Round Valley Roundball Shootout Dec. 9 and 10 in Eagar. Along the way, Holbrook's Corderro Bennett -- who is being lauded as one of the region's most talented players -- earned Most Valuable Player honors.
Based on early season showings, Blue Ridge could also be a force to be reckoned with in the chase for the East crown.
Last week, the Yellow Jackets easily won the Coolidge Invitational, posting a 5-1 record.
Blue Ridge's only defeat was to the host Bears who were later eliminated by losses to Maricopa and Desert Edge.
Following the fray, Yellow Jacket Derek Yazzi was named the tournament's most valuable player and teammates Michael Rodgers and Eli Otero were selected to the all-tournament team.
Down the road
In the month following the clashes with the Roadrunners and Lobos, the Horns play 10 consecutive crucial region games. The results of those games will determine the Horns' postseason fate.
Coach Chuck Hardt has indicated he hopes to use future practice sessions to build upon what the players accomplished during the first month of the season.
"We have a lot of work to do, especially defensively," Hardt said.
His concern for defense might be predicated on the team's effort in a 60-53 win over Chinle Dec. 19 in Wilson dome.
Although the Horns managed to cage the Wildcats, Chinle was able to shoot a very respectable 52 percent from the field.
Giving up that glowing of a shooting accuracy mark, Hardt said, "was a downside against us."
Offensively, the Horns have proven to be a well-rounded team, with four and five players alternating as the scoring leaders.
Among the most effective players on the roster has been senior Brandon Buckner, a two-year varsity starter.
A scrappy, hard-nosed contributor, Buckner has proven to be a good scorer, solid defender and a force in the paint.
Against Chinle, he led the team in scoring, with 15 points, and corralled seven rebounds. In the Winslow Shoot Out tournament -- Dec. 1 to 3 -- against St. Johns, Buckner had perhaps his best game of the early season, finishing with 19 points that included seven-of-12 shooting from the field and five-for-six from the line.
Also in Winslow, Buckner drew plaudits for his defensive efforts in a 47-45 loss to Greyhills.
In the defeat, Buckner hooked up defensively with teammate Carlos Lopez to hold Greyhills' star LeDaniel Gishie, an all-starter last season, to a season-low six points.
In the Flagstaff Pepsi-Cola tournament -- Dec. 9 and 10 --gainst Coconino, Buckner finished with 10 points and hit a pair of clutch free throws in the final seconds that nailed down the win. The senior sharpshooter finished the game four-for-four from the line.
Against Tucson Sabino in the Flagstaff tournament, Buckner led Payson in scoring with 15 points and drew the praise of Hardt, who said, "He worked hard around the boards."
In most of the early season games, Buckner's efforts have been supplemented by those of fellow senior Brian Schwind.
The 6-foot-5-inch center/forward, who is also a state high jump champion, gives the Horns a legitimate threat down low.
During the Winslow tournament, Schwind paced the Horns to the win over St. Johns scoring a season high 20 points. He also tallied 11 points in a tournament win over Ganado and hit five-of-10 shots in the loss to Greyhills.
His scoring, coupled with good rebounding and solid inside defense, had many onlookers wondering why he wasn't selected to the all-tournament team.
Hardt called the slight of Schwind and other Longhorn players "a travesty."
In the Flagstaff Pepsi tournament, Schwind led the Payson charge against Sinagua, scoring 12 points.
Battling Chinle, he scored 10 and later tallied 15 in the victory over Coconino.
His all-around playing ability took center stage against Sabino when he dished out six of the team's 15 assists.
The job of getting the ball to Schwind down low where he can use his height and athletic ability to score has fallen on the shoulders of junior guards Miles Huff and Bryson Addington. The two have been playing alongside one another since middle school and give the Horns a strong, backcourt punch.
Also in the Horn stable are Robert Neuman, Tommy Ashby, Tim Dixon, Jake Winans and Hunter Hardt.
Sophomore Ollie Lewinson, at 6 feet, 7 inches, is a presence inside but has not been with the team for more than two weeks. He is expected to return in January from a 30-day family vacation to India, coach Hardt said.