After spending two seasons battling big school programs in the Class 4A conference, Lady Longhorn basketball coach Rory Huff and his charges now turn their collective attention to heated, small-town basketball.
The switch in competition occurred last spring after the Arizona Interscholastic Association granted Payson High School's petition to leave the 4A ranks and join the 3A conference. PHS had been a member of 3A for two decades before the student body count exceeded the conference maximum in 2002.
"In girls basketball, the 4A conference was really tough," Huff said. "But we still will be facing some good teams in the 3A East."
Among the region teams the coach anticipates Payson must out-play for postseason honors are Snowflake, Alchesay and Round Valley.
"Snowflake is always tough, Alchesay has turned their program around and Round Valley has Chris Matthews who's as good (a coach) as there is," Huff said.
The Lady Horns' goal this season, as it has been since Huff took over the program four years ago, is to become the first Lady Horn hoop team to reach the state final four and play in Glendale Arena.
Of course, a region championship would also be a huge accomplishment. "We want to put a banner up in the dome," Huff said. "There hasn't been one in a long time."
To attain their lofty goals, the Lady Horns must replace the firepower, heady play and defense supplied last year by five seniors -- Haylee Huff, Autumn Herrera, Britney Owens, Tanya Davis and Crystal McRae. All graduated last spring with the class of 2005.
Huff has continued her hoop career as a freshman member of the Grand Canyon University team.
Coach Huff admits the seniors will be missed, but stresses there is a core of returning veterans and several talented newcomers to build the new team.
Letter winners include Danielle O'Haver, Jadyn Walden and Tori Wilbanks.
Also, senior Kendra Francis returns to the team after sitting out last season while rehabilitating from a severe knee injury that required surgery.
Huff can also call upon junior Tamara Crabdree and sophomores Karina Haught and Tess Belcher for duty.
A pair of talented freshmen, Cydney Figueroa and Christina Deaton, also appear ready for varsity playing time.
Last summer, the pair picked up valuable playing experience while members of a Tourney Sport USA team that participated in a national championship basketball tournament in Oahu, Hawaii.
The two were also members of Rim Country Middle School seventh and eighth grade teams that put together back-to-back White Mountain League championships.
In characterizing the mix of seniors and freshmen, Huff said, "We have a real good mix of leadership and talented underclassmen. All have exceptional work ethics."
In preseason workouts, Huff has focused on installing what he hopes will be a suffocating man-to-man defense, a 1-2-2-zone press, a motion offense and a press breaker.
"If I was an opposing coach looking at this team, I would try to press us," he said.
"We have to get better at breaking the press and get the ball up court."
Huff had the opportunity to assess his team in near-game conditions Nov. 17 at Queen Creek.
Huff said he was going to use the controlled scrimmage, in which no score is supposed to be kept, to help finalize a starting lineup that will take the court in the Nov. 23 season opener at Fountain Hills.
New on the schedule this year is the Phoenix Christian Tournament Dec. 1, 2 and 3. The PC fray replaces a Laughlin, Nev. tournament the team traveled to the past several seasons.
Huff said he decided not to return to Laughlin because the trip was becoming too expensive and time consuming.
The highlight of the regular season will the Holiday Hoops tournament Dec. 27 and 28. The Lady Horns enter the fray as the tourney's defending champions.