The biggest challenge facing the 2005-2006 edition of the Payson High School boys basketball team might be rebounding from a topsy-turvy summer.
The offseason began with the resignation of former coach Mike Loutzenheiser. At the onset of June, just about the time the annual Payson Invitational Tournament has been held for the past two decades, a replacement for Loutzenheiser still hadn't been appointed.
Then-freshman coach Kenny Hayes stepped in to try and give the players a sense of normalcy with a summer program.
However, the offseason began to unravel when teams backed out of the Payson Invitational and it was eventually canceled.
In late June, the Horns finally found their long-awaited coach in Scott Dean who arrived from Myrtle Creek, Ore. promising he would instill "good attitudes, mental toughness, desire, citizenship and determination" in his players.
Dean took his team on the road to Bullhead City and Eagar/Springerville where the Horns played well.
In mid-September, Dean surprised almost everyone by submitting his resignation from both teaching and coaching to the school board.
A board decision, however, to not accept his resignation didn't keep him on campus.
He packed his belongings and departed school the afternoon of Sept. 28, saying he was bound for Lake Region State College in Devil's Lake, N.D., where he would be associate athletic director and basketball coach.
"I hate to do this," he said. "I wish I could stay, but I can't. I was a good teacher and wanted to build a basketball program here."
Before leaving, Dean cited a dispute with the administration over pay and years-of-service with which he was being credited as reasons for his departure.
About a week later, Payson High School athletic director Dave Bradley announced that veteran coach Chuck Hardt had been selected to succeed Dean. Hardt is no stranger to Rim Country fans, having served various stints as a football, basketball, cross country and track and field coach at PHS.
With Hardt at the helm, the Longhorn basketball program is steaming toward its season opener Nov. 22 at Scottsdale Christian.
Hardt will have a solid core of veterans to call upon, including Brandon Buckner, Brian Schwind, Tommy Ashby, Robert Neuman and Bryson Addington.
Senior Jake Winans, who did not play last year, adds depth to the team.
Also on the roster are four players off last season's jayvee team -- Tim Dixon, Miles Huff, Carlos Lopez and Hunter Hardt.
Sophomore Ollie Lewinson, who starred last year for the freshman team, has also made varsity.
In assessing his players, Hardt predicts Schwind, a talented 6-foot, 4-inch low post player "will be a target" for opposing defenses.
"He can put it (the basketball) on the floor very well for a big man," Hardt said.
The coach also characterizes him as a tenacious rebounder, hard worker and an athlete who can play at the next level.
A key to giving Schwind help underneath might be the development of Lewinson who at 6-foot, 8-inches will provide the team the height it has been lacking the past few season.
Another important ingredient in the Horn mix is 6-foot, 2-inch senior Brandon Buckner.
A basketball junkie, Buckner plays with a hard-nosed approach that makes him valuable at both ends of the floor.
Last year, Buckner built a reputation as a coach's delight in that he is a hard worker who can always be counted on to do what's best for the team. If his outside shots fall as expected, Buckner should be a candidate for postseason honors.
Like Buckner, Ashby is a rugged, physical-type player who doesn't shy from banging underneath the boards.
"He will help us around the basket," Hardt said. "He needs to work on his free throw shooting because he may get a bunch of chances this season."
If there is a player on the roster who can provide the outside threat the Horns need to go along with their inside play, it could be Neuman.
"He has skill on the perimeter," Hardt said. "He's a streaky shooter, but when he's on, watch out."
During preseason practices leading up to the season opener, Hardt has stressed fundamentals in an effort to prepare the Longhorns for their return to the rugged 3A east region.
"Drill-drill-drill; I believe defense and rebounding win games," Hardt said. "We have been working primarily on techniques and footwork -- both on offense and defense."
The coach cites individual and team defense as weaknesses that must be corrected.
"We have a bunch of work to do to be competitive with the top 3A teams," he said. "The talent is there, but will we work hard enough to realize our potential?"
After been tapped head coach, Hardt lured Ross Carpenter away from the RCMS seventh-grade program to become his assistant.
Kenny Hayes, last year's freshman coach, has moved to the junior varsity position.
Joe La Salandra, who led last year's Rim Country Middle School eighth-grade team to a White Mountain League championship, takes over the freshman team.
After opening the season on the road at Scottsdale Christian, Sedona, and in the Winslow Tournament, the Horns will make their home debut Dec. 6 in Wilson dome against Globe.
Game times are 4 p.m. (freshmen), jayvee (5:30 p.m.) and 7 p.m. (varsity).