For a variety of reasons, the Lady Longhorn soccer team is looking forward to challenging a trio of longtime adversaries.
The rivals are the White Mountain schools of Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Show Low.
"The Blue Ridge (rivalry) is because they are frequent (region) and state champions," coach Joe Schmidt said. "Show Low (is a rival), because they are a very competitive bunch of bruisers and Snowflake, because the girls have some friends on that team."
The outcome of regular season games against those longtime foes will also be crucial to Lady Longhorn playoff hopes, mostly because all are members of the East region, along with Payson.
However, a pair of upcoming games against Blue Ridge, Sept. 1 and Sept. 11, might hold special significance, since it was the Yellow Jackets who eliminated the Lady Horns from the 2006 state tournament with a 2-1 first round win.
Although PHS stumbled, the team almost pulled off the upset of the prep season.
The Lady Horns (5-5-1) entered the fray as huge underdogs, clutching a lowly fifth and final seed. Highly touted BR was the East region champion.
Payson wouldn't have made it to the state tournament, usually only the top four teams in each region advance, had not the West sent to state only three qualifying teams.
In taking on the Jackets for the third time that season, Schmidt opted for a strategy change, in which he sent Hannah Lee forward from stopper and pushed the midfielders and wings up as well.
The strategy paid dividends when senior Caitlyn Fruth scored with eight minutes remaining, to pull Payson within one.
In the final eight minutes, Payson had 10 shots on goal, but could never tally the game-tying goal.
"We came up just short of sending the game into overtime," Schmidt said.
In taking on BR this year, the coach is hoping the players muster the same intensity they showed in that heartbreaking state loss.
Several starting members of the 2006 team return to the Lady Horn fold including Jamie Bilyk, Kayla Morgan, Alexia Robles, Becca Branstetter and Kirsha Wholly, the daughter of former Longhorn soccer coach Roger Wholly.
Last season, Robles and Wholly were all-region honorable mention selections.
But, with only five veterans on the team, Schmidt characterizes the squad "as a young team with a lot of questions.
"I have a number of good athletes who will contribute, as they hone their soccer skills."
Despite the youth movement ongoing in the program, Schmidt is confident the team will be among the region leaders.
"Expect us to improve rapidly as the season goes on and be competitive in the state tournament," he said.
The younger players he is counting on to contribute include Tina Breen, Monica Lamb, Mandi Parker, Talia Schaal, Marissa Garcia, Kayla Francis. J.J. Kepp, Claudia Mares and Samantha McCormick.
Schmidt also predicts some talented freshmen, including Elizabeth Romberger, could see varsity playing time.
Newcomers to the team include Sara DeWitt, Emily Hill and Kyndel Lann.
With 25 players available at a practice late last week, Schmidt believes he has the numbers to also field a junior varsity squad.
"I have 16 freshmen and several developing sophomores who will form a well-rounded JV team," he said.
After watching the team toil through two weeks of preseason practices, Schmidt is confident the players are on the right track.
"Practices have been going well; the main focuses are to develop basic skills in new players, teach defensive skills to every player and to develop a cohesive varsity team," he said. "We alternate between skill drills, sprint work, distance training and scrimmages."
On hand to help Schmidt are assistants Grant Kepp and Kendrick Francis.
The Lady Horns kick off the campaign at 4 p.m. Aug. 28 in far-away Monument Valley.
"That's not a trip I'm look forward to," Schmidt said about the round-trip journey that can take as long as 10 hours.
Also, a Sept. 6 clash against Sedona has been highlighted on the coaches' and players' schedules mostly because the Scorpions are defending state champions.
"I like to play them to show our team what the standard of excellence is and what we are trying to achieve," Schmidt said.
Game times are 4 (jayvee) and 6 p.m. (varsity) in Sedona.