The Payson High School freshmen boys have tasted the bitter heartbreak of defeat for the first time in two years.
After finishing last season at Rim Country Middle School as the undefeated White Mountain League champions and posting a 6-0 record this season, the streak came to an end with a 71-49 loss to Seton Catholic Jan. 7 in Chandler.
Coach Joe LaSalandra, who coached the team both years, knows the disappointment the teens were feeling.
"When I walked into the locker room after the game there was absolute silence," he said. "The players were on benches and on the floor, heads down.
"No excuses were made, no complaints."
The coach was also the first one to shoulder some of the blame for the defeat.
"I was mostly responsible, I was unfocused and hesitated in making the necessary defensive and offensive changes that would have allowed us to recover and play to win," he said. "In the final quarter, we moved to a zone defense, which allowed us to make a run, but Seton countered with 80 percent free throw shooting."
The loss also might be attributed to a normally efficient offense that sputtered, especially in the low blocks and from the free throw line.
"In the first half, we made only four of 14 (shot) attempts inside the paint and for the game were eight of 15 from the line," LaSalandra said.
Seton countered by shooting 46 percent from the field and converted 12 of 15 charity shots.
Tyler Savage led all scorers with 19 points. Hyde Arbuckle contributed 10 and Max Sieverson had nine.
Although the loss was tough to absorb, the coach encouraged the players to focus on the remainder of the season.
"I told the team, ‘The game is over, put it behind you, keep your head up and get ready for the next game,'" LaSalandra said.
In the Horns' next outing, Jan. 10 in Wilson dome, the frosh took their coach's advice, whipping an outmanned Estrella Foothills team 64-46.
Following the win, LaSalandra breathed a sigh of relief.
"Hopefully we are back on track and have learned the lesson of ‘Seton Catholic,'" he said.
In the win, the Horns jumped out to a 16-8 lead despite missing several lay-ups.
At half time, Payson led 27-20. By the final seconds of the third quarter, the Horns had expanded their cushion to 48-32.
Shane Keith and Savage shared scoring honors with 15 points each. Sieverson finished with 10 and reserve Mike Dahm tallied six, while corralling several key rebounds.
In addition to the Horns turning in a strong offensive performance, the defense forced EF into a whopping 20 turnovers.
A Jan. 5 clash in old PHS gym featured the two teams, Payson and Snowflake, which met last season for the White Mountain League championship.
Like last year, Payson emerged victorious, whipping the Lobos 71-49.
The Horns jumped out to a 23-13 lead and never looked back on the way to the triumph. Savage proved almost unstoppable, scoring 18 points and hauling down 10 rebounds. Sieverson finished with 16 points and Keith had 12.
The highlights of the game, LaSalandra said, might have been the young players' ability "to get the ball inside to the big men more consistently and play aggressive defensively."
Following the game, the coach lauded the players as "a hardworking, talented group of athletes that are making a positive impact in Longhorn basketball."