Horns Tenure In 4a Yields Mixed Results

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Longhorn winter sports teams wrapped up their final season in the 4A conference with mixed results.

The most successful of the teams was the wrestling squad that grappled to a state fourth-place finish.

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The Payson High School wrestling team was the most successful of the winter sports squads, grappling to a 4A state fourth-place finish. The Longhorn soccer teams made it to the first round of state before losing. Neither the boys or girls basketball teams qualified for postseason play in the 4A conference.

The boys and girls soccer teams earned state tournament berths, but both were eliminated in the first round of play.

Neither the boys nor girls basketball teams were able to nail down state tournament invitations by finishing among the top-three Grand Canyon Region teams.

The past season was the final opportunity Horn teams had to flex their muscle in the "big school" ranks. Next year, Payson returns to the "small school" 3A conference East Region.

While competition in the 3A East can be fierce in football, the ranks don't attract the statewide public attention that 4A garners.

The return to 3A is a break-even situation for Longhorn athletes and teams. They'll have more opportunities for success, but any they enjoy won't carry the prestige they would have in 4A.

The Horns realignment also has received mixed reviews in Payson and around the East Region.

Some local coaches said they hoped Payson would remain in the 4A conference that has been split into two divisions -- one for smaller, rural schools and another for the larger Phoenix and Tucson schools.

The Longhorns will have a numbers advantage when they return to the 3A conference. PHS, which has about 950 students, will be competing in a conference for schools with 450 to 949 students. Some East schools, like Round Valley, have student bodies of only about 500 to draw from.

For the past two seasons, PHS has been the smallest school in the 4A conference; now it becomes the 3A's largest.

How they fared

Among the PHS wrestling team's accomplishments last season was producing the school's first four-time state champion -- Nate Lee. He won 3A titles as a freshman and sophomore and 4A crowns as a junior and senior.

The team lineup also sported state runner-up David Cluff.

The boys soccer team, which won a 1A-3A small-school state championship three years ago, found life in 4A circles doubly tough. After struggling most of the early season, the Horns rallied to earn the Grand Canyon Region's No. 2 seed to the state tournament.

In the opening round at Rumsey Park, Payson was eliminated 2-0 by a loss to Glendale of the Desert Sky Region.

At the conclusion of the tournament, Trent Hubbard and Patrick Karlowski were named to the all-region first team. Ian Benney was tapped second team and honorable mention accolades were doled out to Nathan Doyle.

The Lady Horns advanced to state as the GCR No. 3 seed and lost a first round state clash to Tucson Ironwood Ridge.

In the two years Payson was in 4A, the basketball teams were unable to make the state tournament.

For Payson, the fierce competition in the 4A ranks took its toll on a school whose student body was by far the smallest in the conference.

The Lady Horns started strong defeating Page in the championship of the Holiday Hoops Invitational Tournament. But as the rugged campaign wore on, the team was unable to maintain the furious pace and lost three consecutive hard-fought games to the finely-tuned Sand Devils.

The boys basketball team thrived in the school's final year in the 3A conference winning the East Region championship. But the past two seasons in 4A, the team struggled against the heightened competition, winning just four games.

With the sports year entering its spring phase, the PHS baseball, softball and track teams will now test their mettle, for the final time, against big-school competition.

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