A second-place finish in the second flight of the Round Valley Invitational might have been the Longhorn boys soccer team's immediate reward, but it was the experience of four games in two days that could pay big dividends later in the season.
"I was able to see a lot of my younger players, and everyone picked up plenty of playing time," coach Roger Wholly said. "With (region) play about to begin (Sept. 7 in Holbrook), that was important."
The Horns opened Elk invitational play in impressive fashion, dumping longtime nemesis Snowflake 4-2.
Senior Trent Hubbard, who scored four goals, highlighted the game with his offensive play.
Wholly couldn't confirm whether Hubbard broke a team records, however, he couldn't remember an instance when a player scored more than four goals.
Three of Hubbard's scores came off assists supplied by A.J. Hilgendorf, Stephen Liponi and Shane Tuer.
In the caging of the Snowflake Lobos, Payson jumped out to a 2-0 lead early and clung to the cushion until the second half when Snowflake finally got on the board. Wholly said good defensive play kept the Lobos at bay most of the game.
Following the opening-round win, the Horns returned to the field against Chino Valley only to see a bizarre play set the stage for a 3-0 loss.
"Only about a minute and a half into the game a dog ran onto the field," Wholly said. "A (Chino Valley) kick went between the dog's legs and our goalie (Victor Diaz) didn't want to kick the dog, so it scored.
"I was furious the refs didn't call a time out when the dog came on the field," Wholly said.
With a 1-1 first-day record, the Longhorns were seeded into the second flight on the next day.
The opener, against Kirkland, N.M., marked the return of senior Patrick Karlowski who has been sidelined all season with a knee injury.
With Karlowski in the lineup, the Horns were able to run set plays on what Wholly called, a field that resembled a "a mud bath from box to box."
Late in the first half, the Horns overcame the adversity of a sloppy field to take a 2-1 lead. Throughout a scoreless second half, the team's defense once again rose to the occasion.
In the Horns' fourth and final tournament game, a 5-0 loss to Round Valley, Payson lost senior Justin Shuman who went down with an ankle injury that Wholly anticipates could keep him out of the lineup for a month.
After falling behind 3-0 at halftime, Wholly emptied his bench giving the younger players an opportunity to showcase their skills.
With East region play set to begin, Wholly tagged Blue Ridge and Show Low the teams to beat.
"Both of those look really strong," he said. "Of course, we know Round Valley is good too.