If only the Holiday Hoops tournament could talk.
The Grand Lady of Christmas hardwood play could tell a rich sports story that tipped off in 1997 as a series of non-region showdowns geared to help coaches evaluate players before all-important league play kicked off. The games, all contested over the course of two days, also provided an opportunity for young players to gain invaluable experience without worry about making a crucial mistake in a for-all-the-marbles region game.
As the tournament grew from 14 teams to 20, and then back to the current 16, it also yielded a somewhat unexpected benefit -- much needed financial support.
Last year, the Lady Horns earned more than $3,000 from gate receipts and concessions.
Former coach Rory Huff said the money earned helped maintain the integrity of the program, mostly because the school's tight athletic budget couldn't pay for many team necessities.
If the tournament does decide to someday speak up, among her fondest memories might be the long list of fine Lady Horn athletes she's hosted.
In the early years of the fray, Amberlyn White, Molly Hunt and Erin Dahlman starred before going on to lead the 1997-1998 team to a 23-5 mark and set scoring records for a single game and a season.
Some longtime fans argue that team was the finest to take the Holiday Hoops stage.
Following the graduation of the talented trio -- White, Hunt and Dahlman -- Sidney Swartwood, Stephanie Robertson, Reanna Martinez and Nikki Scholl took turns using the Holiday Hoops as a springboard to regular season success.
As the years flowed by, the tournament grew in stature and became a haven for players like Whitney Hardt, Haylee Huff, Krystal McRae and Danielle O'Haver to fine-tune their court game.
The Grand Lady might also remember that she not only gave the PHS stars an opportunity to shine, but also provided a chance for the lesser-known, yeoman-like players to prove what they could contribute to a team effort.
If reminiscing, Ms. Holiday Hoops would probably fondly recall those athletes as the rock-solid role players crucial to the tournament success of any team battling its way to the top.
Not only has the Grand Lady been a fund-raiser and a showcase for players, it has given small town athletes the rare chance to compete against Class 4A and 5A opponents.
Because the tournament attracts to Payson "big school" Valley-area teams like Mesa, Scottsdale Desert Mountain, Mesa Dobson, Arcadia and Phoenix North, PHS team members and other 3A athletes from around the state have had the opportunity to compete against foes they would not normally see during the course of a season.
As a sophomore in 2003 playing in her first tournament, former Lady Horn Tracy Fitzpatrick said she was thrilled to compete because she was able to learn how she measured up against quality opponents.
"I also made some new friends," she said.
Most certainly in recalling the past, the Grand Lady wouldn't forget the PHS coaches who have led their teams into the tournament.
For PHS, they include Jerry Daniels, Crystal Garvin, Shaun Hardt and Huff. All experienced success in past tournaments, but it was Huff who led the Lady Horns to a tournament title in 2005. Just one year after finishing 3-1 and the Holiday Hoops runner-up, Huff's charges compiled a 4-0 record to earn the crown.
The highlight of the run to the tournament gold, Ms. Holiday Hoops would remember, was a stirring 50-33 upset over then-state-ranked Page.
Because the Grand Lady is all about providing a quality athletic and cultural experience for teenagers, she might not remember that she also significantly contributes to the Rim Country economy.
Each year, she attracts to Payson almost 200 high school players as well as their coaches, parents, friends and fans.
Former tournament director Teddy Pettet estimated more than 1,200 visitors descend on Payson during a Holiday Hoops weekend using the town's motels, restaurants and retail shops.
During most tournament weekends, an early morning drive on the Beeline will reveal school buses parked in the motel parking lots.
A visit to local restaurants during mealtime usually results in a slight delay because many are packed with players and fans.
The Grand Lady also provides an opportunity for many visitors to stop and enjoy the town rather than viewing it only as a restroom stop on visits to the White Mountains or higher elevation lakes and campgrounds.
This year's Holiday Hoops tournament will be held Dec. 29 and 30 in Wilson Dome. Tournament schedules will be printed in upcoming editions of the Payson Roundup.