With a 4-24 season now in the Payson High School history books, underclassmen in the Longhorn basketball program will join coach Mike Loutzenheiser in building for the future.
The coach and his players are now laying the foundation for the schools return to the 3A conference East region from the 4A Grand Canyon where it has been aligned for the past two seasons.
Payson High School was allowed to drop down to the small school conference last fall after the Arizona Interscholastic Association granted an appeal based on the fact PHS was the smallest school in 4A and only about five students over the 3A maximum.
The return to the East region will mean Loutzenheiser and his charges will once again be battling the likes of Show Low, Blue Ridge and Snowflake for regional honors and berths in the state tournament. The move will rekindle some old rivalries that began in 1983 when PHS first played in the East region.
Because the 3A conference has 33 schools and 23,000 students compared to the 4A's 62 schools and 93,000 students, earning postseason honors won't be as difficult for PHS teams and athletes.
Another benefit of the move will be that the top four region finishers in 3A are usually given berths to the state tournament. In 4A play, most regions send just three qualifying teams to the state tournament.
The Horns will take to the East next season a solid crew of returning letter-winners including Brian Schwind, Brandon Buckner, Tommy Ashby, Brandon Riley and Bryson Addington.
Loutzenheiser can call up a handful of players from last season's junior varsity squad and perhaps one or two athletes from the freshmen team.
Last season, PHS's final campaign in the Grand Canyon region, the underclassmen had the opportunity to play against some of the finest big-school teams in Arizona including unbeaten and 5A state championship favorite Mesa Mountain View.
The Horns gave the Toros a good tuft in the Mohave Christmas holiday tournament before falling 66-49.
Other 4A teams the Horns played that are alive in the postseason include Flagstaff Coconino, Chinle, Scottsdale Coronado, Apache Junction, Page, Glendale Apollo and Pinnacle.
Although the rugged schedule didn't do much for the Horns won-loss record, the stiff competition might have better prepared the younger athletes for next season.
For the senior members of the Longhorn team, there weren't very many "W's" posted on the win-loss column.
But there were several memorable efforts including a late-season 62-53 win over a Chinle team that eventually qualified for the state tournament.
In Wilson Dome on parents' night, the Horns turned in probably their finest showing of the year.
Senior guard Wellington Cassuto, a four-year player in the hoop program, paced the offense with 16 points. Fellow senior Donnie Wilbanks contributed 15 including a pair of three-pointers. Although Wilbanks played primarily in the front court and was counted on to rebound and defend, he rounded into perhaps the Horns best three-point shooter.
At season's end, he won a team three-point shoot out and represented PHS in a long-distance shooting competition held during the regional tournament finals. He did not, however, place in the shoot.
After whipping Chinle, the Longhorns were forced to play four games, on the road, in the course of one week.
The rugged schedule was the result of several postponements in early January when snow made travel to the Flagstaff schools unsafe.
The challenging season came to a end in a 61-50 GCR region tournament opening round loss at Flagstaff Coconino.
The members of the freshmen, jayvee and varsity team and their coaches will gather for the traditional awards banquet. The time and place of the festivities will be announced later this week.