Longhorn baseball coach Jerry Daniels is adamant that Payson High's return to the 3A ranks after spending two years in the 4A conference won't make the team's title dreams any easier to achieve.
"Many people think that we will play an easier schedule because we are dropping back," he said. "What they don't know is that this (3A East) is one of the toughest leagues in the state.
"It will be a dog fight for teams from this league to try to get into the state tournament."
To receive a berth into the postseason playoffs, teams must finish among the top four in the final region standings.
The opponents Daniels predicts will stand in the way of the Horns' pursuit of a state tournament berth are the same ones Payson battled during its previous stint in the 3A conference (1983-2003).
"Blue Ridge, Show Low, Snowflake and Round Valley are always tough and I don't expect that to be any different this year," he said. "Holbrook is loaded with exceptional athletes and should be in the hunt for the league title."
The Longhorns will counter the beasts of the East with a battery that includes two seasoned pitchers, a handful of new hurlers and a rock solid catcher.
The veterans, Jason Sweet and Matt Behrens, are expected to shoulder most of the mound duties this year.
"I also plan on some good outings from Jacob Willis, Tyler Savage and a few others that have been working on their pitching skills," Daniels said.
Whoever is on the mound, he'll have one of the conference's finest catchers behind the plate.
"Matt LeVac has been the starting catcher for two years and will provide team leadership as well as a great backstop for our pitchers," Daniels said. "He handles the pitchers well."
Sweet and LeVac bring to the team a bundle of experience, acquired will playing on a highly competitive, off-season valley-area club team.
Both finished with .400 plus batting averages and Sweet posted a 14-3 pitching record with four saves.
Sweet said radar guns have clocked his fastball in the 85 to 86 mph range, which is a remarkable improvement over last season when he was hampered with elbow tendonitis.
"Last year was tough for me," he said. "I'm excited to see what this year brings."
Both players have attracted the attention of college recruiters with their off-season exploits.
Both were also in Las Vegas last weekend showcasing their skills in a tryout camp.
In addition to Sweet, Behrens and LeVac, the Horns have three other returning letter winners to build the foundation of the team upon.
They include Shawn Christensen, Andy Sanders and Albert Talamonte.
Four players on the roster were on the junior varsity team last season -- Matt Jones, Zac Miller, Austin Slapnicka and Willis.
Newcomers include seniors Nick Blazer and Tony Renna as well as sophomores Nick Abraham and Anthony Pearce.
Daniels has also penciled in four freshmen on the varsity roster.
Hunter Haynes, Tyler Savage and Ryan Williams could see early season action but Ridge Halenar is sidelined with an injury.
Practices offer season strategy
Preseason practices have allowed Daniels to evaluate his players and instill the strategy and philosophy he'd like the team to rely on during the season.
"Practices have gone very well," he said. "The boys have great attitudes, good work ethics and are very coachable.
"From what I've seen, I expect us to be improved defensively and more fundamentally sound. But, our greatest weakness is hitting."
With two tournaments just over the horizon -- March 1 to 4 at Mohave Valley and March 8 to 11 at Miami -- Daniels will have the opportunity to fine tune the team's offensive attack before the all-important East play tips off March 14 against Holbrook.
"We'll play 10 games in nine days so I am expecting the hitting to come along as the boys see more live pitching," Daniels said. "If we stay healthy this season, I am expecting good things."
Sweet concurs with his coach that this team could be a special one.
"I think if we play to our potential, we should win region and make a solid run in the playoffs," he said. "The difference with our team this year is the chemistry. We are all very close and willing to learn and work hard."
Assisting Daniels this season are a core of volunteer coaches including Pat Haynes, Maurice Sweet, Steve Sachak and David Daniels.
Joe La Salandra will coach the junior varsity.