Longhorns Face Tough First Round At State

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The luck of the draw wasn't in Payson's cards when the Class 3A state basketball tournament brackets were dealt.

Evidence the Longhorns came up short in the state shuffle surfaced when it was announced Payson and all East region qualifiers open state tournament play Feb. 13 in Flagstaff against teams from the traditionally tough North region.

Having to take on the North, which is made up of Hopi and Navajo reservation schools where basketball is king, is a tough draw. The quality of the North qualifiers and the single elimination format of the state tournament could result in very good East teams being sent packing after the first round.

"That's the luck of the draw," said Payson High School athletic director Dave Bradley. "Some years, things like that happen."

In state tournament first round bracketing for boys and girls, the East champion will play the North's No. 4 qualifier.

The East runner-up takes on North No. 3 and the East bronze medalist is paired against the North's No. 2 team.

The East's fourth and final seed will be pitted against the North region champion.

In other first round state games, the 3A South qualifiers are matched up against West region seeds.

While the South and West house some good teams, like Seton Catholic, Coolidge and Globe, the competition might not be as fierce as it is when the East and North collide.

The North qualifying teams traditionally draw thousands of reservation-area fans to Flagstaff, rendering the East teams' state challenge even more difficult.

Even though the first 12 state games are played on a neutral court inside the Northern Arizona University Skydome, the vocal presence of the reservation fans afford the North teams an almost home court advantage.

No one understands that handicap more than former Longhorn basketball coach Mike Loutzenheiser.

"It's tough playing the reservation teams when they have 3,000 or 4,000 fans in the stands. It can be intimidating for young kids," he said, after watching his 2003 East championship team fall, 57-53, to Tuba City in the state quarterfinals in Flagstaff.

Past state tournament final four teams have often included three from the North region, rendering the state supremacy of the reservation teams more than a mere myth.

The disadvantage of drawing the North in the first round of the state basketball showdown has some from around the state clamoring for a power point playoff system similar to one 4A and 5A football teams use in their playoff format.

Also discussed to even the playing field is the option of offering the North less state representation in the sports of football and softball. In those two sports, North teams have been weak and often No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are eliminated after the first day.

The final four and state championship games of the 2007 tournament will be played Feb. 23 and 24 in Glendale arena. Game times for state games have yet to be determined.

The Lady Horns

If the Lady Longhorns emerge from the regular season and East region tournament with a No. 1 seed, they would most likely draw Monument Valley or Chinle in the state tournament's first round.

In some polls, Monument Valley is state fifth-ranked and Chinle is rated No. 6.

The Lady Horns were to play Chinle Dec. 23, 2006, but that game was canceled because PHS was short players due to injuries, illnesses and holiday vacations.

If the Lady Horns fall to the East second seed they would also probably play either Monument Valley or Chinle.

The worst-case scenario for the Lady Horns would be to enter the state tournament as a three or four seed because they would then be pitted against either powerful Winslow or Ganado.

Currently, Ganado is state top ranked with a 19-3 record.

Coach Don Petronvich's Winslow Lady Bulldogs are 20-3 and ranked second in the state.

Both teams are tradition-rich, sport talented players and have proven all season long they can play with the state's best, regardless of school size classification.

Longhorns also face tough obstacles

Among the boys team's goals in its two remaining regular season games (Feb. 2 vs. Round Valley and Feb. 3 vs. Show Low) and the regional tournament Feb. 9 and 10 will be to earn a regional championship and a state top seed.

A No. 1 seed would send the Horns to state against either Chinle or Winslow.

The teams are no strangers to one another.

In regular season action, Payson whipped Chinle, 78-57, but lost, 84-71, to Winslow.

Should the Horns fall into the state runner-up slot, their opening round opponent would likely still be Chinle or Winslow.

However, if Payson slips to a third or fourth seed the team would have the unenviable task of taking on either Window Rock (17-4) or Monument Valley (15-5) in the opening round. Window Rock and Monument Valley are currently locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the North title.

The bottom line in the seedings, whether it's boys or girls, is that the East's No. 3 and 4 qualifiers will have a tough row to hoe against the North's No. 1 and 2.

But, the East champion and region runner-up will have a good chance of prevailing against the North's three and four seeds.

Whatever unfolds in state pairings, the annual February frenzy is sure to tickle the hardwood fantasy of players, fans and coaches from around the 3A conference.

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