Back-to-back wins over the Holbrook Roadrunners and the Snowflake Lobos have the Longhorns off and running in the East region championship chase.
The Horns slipped past the East-region defending champion Roadrunners 52-45 Jan. 3 and continued on a tear Jan. 5 with a 70-49 caging of the Lobos.
In a non-region clash Jan. 6 in Wilson Dome against Chandler Seton Catholic, the Horns gave the Sentinels all they could handle before falling 59-56.
The Horns trailed only 57-56 with less than a second remaining but were forced to foul.
Chandler, the team that eliminated Payson from the state tournament last season and is state third-ranked this year, converted both attempts to salvage the hard-fought win over the scrappy Payson High School squad.
As tough as the loss was to absorb, it did not affect the East region standings or Payson's playoff opportunities.
By posting the early season wins over the Falcons and Lobos, the Horns improve their East record to 2-0, with the Alchesay Falcons waiting in the wings. That clash, which could be for the region lead, will be played Jan. 12 in Wilson Dome.
In the win over Holbrook, the Longhorns played to their strength by posting 6-foot-8-inch junior forward/center Oliver Lewinson inside for close-in shots and rebounds.
As Lewinson did in the win over Snowflake and the loss to Seton, he used his height and athletic ability to dominate in the paint.
His defensive presence also altered several of the opposition's shot attempts.
Against Holbrook, he finished with a season high of 25 points, which included three-of-four shooting from the free throw line. Lewinson also hauled in 13 rebounds, blocked five Runner shots and had a steal and assist.
Most importantly, he played an almost error-free floor game, committing just one turnover during a game in which the team coughed up 16 miscues.
Since the onset of the season, coach Chuck Hardt has stressed the importance of ball security and not giving up possession without getting off at least one shot attempt
Hardt's concerns have their origins during last season when several turnovers wreaked havoc with Horn championship aspirations.
In addition to Lewinson's stellar play, the Horn cause received a boost from sophomore Cody York who has returned to action after being sidelined in the early season with an injury.
York finished with seven points, six rebounds, two steals and two assists.
Solid performances such as the one he turned in might be just the boost Hardt is hoping for as the East title chase heats up in the next month.
Ever since former starting forward Robert Walker broke his ankle last week in an off-the-court accident, Hardt has been scoring his roster for contributors, like York, to fill the void.
"Losing Robert hurt us," Hardt said. "We're looking for others to step up."
Caging the Lobos
The win over visiting Snowflake, a longtime archrival of the Longhorns, was particularly rewarding for Payson players and alumni.
Mostly because the Lobos have long been a thorn in the side of the Horns, often spoiling Payson hopes of winning region titles and advancing to postseason playoffs.
In the Horns Jan. 5 win, however, Lewinson and senior guard Bryson Addington combined for a one-two punch the Lobos could never slow.
Lewinson pounded inside for 20 points and Addington used his penetrating skills to score 13 on a variety of short jumpers and layups.
Carlos Lopez and Levi Neal contributed nine each.
Entering the game, Hardt expected Snowflake to counter the PHS offense with a zone and that's exactly what the Lobo brain trust decided upon.
"We wanted to get a lead and try to get them out of it (the zone)," Hardt said.
With the offense hitting on all cylinders and scoring 70 points, that's exactly what the Horns accomplished.
The two teams will meet once again Jan. 23 in Snowflake.