A pair of tournaments and 12 non-region games set the stage for the Longhorns' month-long chase for Payson's first East region boys championship since 2003.
The Horns' run for the gold tips off at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, against the Holbrook Roadrunners in Wilson Dome.
Fans holding early versions of PHS hoop schedules will notice the game was originally to be played in Holbrook.
However, because a Jan. 3 game against Holbrook set for Wilson Dome would have conflicted with a PHS wrestling meet, the game sites were switched.
"We just flip-flopped the home and away," athletic director Dave Bradley said.
Hoop action continues Jan. 5 in Wilson Dome against the Snowflake Lobos.
The highway to glory culminates Feb. 7 through Feb. 10 with the regional championship tournament that begins at the home site of higher seeds and wraps up in Snowflake.
The results of the regular season and region tournament will seed the East's top four teams into the 16-team state finals, which begin Feb. 14 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
In 2006 regular season play, the only two East teams to meet were Round Valley and Show Low.
In that game, the Elks ran rampant over the Cougars to the tune of 59-45 and are now in sole possession of first place with a 12-3 overall slate (1-0 in the East).
Trailing the Eagar-Springerville bugle boys are Alchesay (11-0), Payson (9-3), Holbrook (7-4), Blue Ridge (2-4), Snowflake (4-9) and Show Low (3-7 and 0-1).
The Longhorns open against Holbrook with one of the region's finest all-around players pulling the trigger on the offense and spearheading the man-to-man defense.
Senior Miles Huff, a two-year starter who leads the region in assists with 79 and is second in steals with 40, was chosen in December as a member of the Flagstaff Pepsi Shoot Out All-Tournament team.
Huff, refusing to accept any individual accolades, pointed to the entire team as the key to PHS success.
"We expect to do well because we have so much talent," he said. "Our goal is to win the East and go to state as the No. 1 seed."
While Huff has proven to be the Horns' floor general, the team has several other weapons who are among the best in the region.
Junior forward Robert Walker, a left-handed sharp shooter from outside the 19-foot, 9-inch arc, is third in the East in three-point shots with 16.
However, Walker is apparently lost for the year, and possibly the track and field season, with an ankle injury incurred last week in an accident suffered while jostling with a teammate.
Walker's ability to score from outside, especially when the Horns face the myriad of zone defenses coach Chuck Hardt is anticipating, was expected to be one of the weapons the PHS cause would need.
Without him, Hardt will be scouring the roster for another sharp-shooting zone buster.
Without Walker on the floor, 6-foot-8-inch junior forward Oliver Lewinson must shoulder even more of the offensive load than he has before. He now leads the region in both blocked shots (23) and rebounds (103).
Because very few small school teams enjoy the luxury of having a player of Lewinson's height available to roam the paint, his presence could become a difference maker in both the regular season and playoffs.
Only time will tell, however, how the loss of Walker will affect the Horns' championship chances.
With him, team depth will play a crucial role, especially when foul troubles plague the defenders.
That's when varsity veterans like Bryson Addington, Carlos Lopez and Hunter Hardt will be called upon to contribute.
Payson also has several first year varsity members who have the talent and the court savvy to play a role in the East outcome. They include Cody York, Tyler Savage and Levi Neal.
York and Savage are sophomores and Neal is a junior.
In opening against Holbrook, the Horns will not have to contend with Cordero Bennett who last season led the Roadrunners to the state tournament.
Bennett graduated last spring, but the Roadrunners do have 6-foot-4-inch Olen Hatch returning, who is third in East scoring with 200 points.
Also for Holbrook, Jason Belin is first in the region in steals (44) and second in assists (51).
The Runners also feature Troy Stingley who has been an offensive force in early season play with several double-digit efforts. In a 76-58 win over Ganado, Stingley scored a game high 18 points.
Huff said he and his teammates respect the Roadrunners, but enter tomorrow's East opener with their sights set on a "W."
"We are a team that expects to win," Huff said.