The Longhorn football team is gearing up for Payson High School's return next school year to the 3A conference East Region where gridiron play reigns supreme.
Under third-year coach Jerry Rhoades, spring practices kicked off May 17 and will continue with after-school sessions until May 20.
Rhoades said the practices will be used to get the players back into a football mode and to set the stage for what he hopes is a highly successful summer program.
The summer sessions, Rhoades said, will be used for weight training, conditioning, teaching the Longhorn system and possibly for passing league competition.
In the practices the coach will have at his disposal several veterans who are expected to be the foundation on which next year's team is built.
Among those with starting experience from the 2004 season are Kevin Allen, Luke Apfel, Cash Armstrong, Joe Blackburn, Donald Engler, Derrick Hoosava and Luke Runzo.
Allen, Runzo and Engler are two-way linemen and Apfel can play three positions -- receiver, running back and cornerback. Armstrong is a rock solid defender at middle linebacker and can play fullback. Blackburn and Hoosava have the speed to man the wide receiver and defensive back positions.
The biggest shoes Rhoades will have to fill are those of departing quarterback Donnie Wilbanks who graduates with the class of 2005 and will take his gridiron act to Mesa Community College next year.
His replacement hasn't been named yet, but possibilities include Apfel, Miles Huff and Josh Blalock.
Apfel saw some action under center last year when Wilbanks was injured.
Huff, who will be a junior, has also taken varsity snaps and started on the jayvee team.
Senior-to-be Josh Blalock sat out last year but in his early seasons of high school play showed plenty of potential.
When play begins in the fall, the Longhorns will be trying to rebound from the disappointment of last year when Payson opened the season on fire recording four consecutive wins only to go into a nose dive and drop six straight.
After the 2005 opening kickoff, the players will be out to erase from their minds the agony of a gut-wrenching, season-ending 14-12 loss to Flagstaff Sinagua in which Payson was without Wilbanks and Apfel. Both were on the sidelines with injuries.
With less than a minute to play, the Horns scored a TD to pull within two points.
On the attempted two-point conversion, substitute quarterback Chris Skinner tried to hook up with Hoosava on a pass attempt that misfired.
The loss marked the conclusion of the prep football careers for 10 seniors and set the stage for the juniors to take over leadership next season.