The stage has been set for the Lady Longhorns to challenge one of the most successful girls basketball programs in the state.
The test tips off at 6 p.m. today, Tuesday, in Eagar against the region-leading Round Valley Lady Elks (15-5 overall, 4-0 in the East), coached by Chris Matthews.
Payson will take to Apache County a formidable team that has compiled a 15-2 record -- 3-0 in the East -- despite being hobbled in midseason by injuries to frontcourt starters Jenna Robertson and Kayla Morgan.
Robertson, the East region's leading rebounder, was sidelined by a knee injury suffered in the Holiday Hoops tournament.
Morgan went down days later with a concussion suffered in a practice accident when she was hit by a thrown ball.
Without the two, coach Grant Coley called upon guards Rhea Cosay and Cydney Figueroa to spearhead the Lady Horn attack.
Robertson and Morgan returned to the lineup Jan. 13 in the Lady Horns' 57-42 win over Blue Ridge in Lakeside.
Robertson scored nine points and Morgan contributed 12 to the win.
Cosay led all scorers with 14 points.
In the win, Coley praised the defensive efforts of Lana Cluff who helped slow the Yellow Jacket offense, led by Raelynn Johnson and Rae Tenijieth.
In Eagar, the Lady Horns will take on a Round Valley team that has won the East region championship six of the past eight years.
The other two seasons, Round Valley was region runner-up.
In 2003, Matthews coached the Lady Elks to the 3A state championship, breaking the stranglehold long held by North region reservation teams.
Since Matthews took over the reins of the program in 1999, the Lady Elks averaged over 20 wins a season and have won more than 75 percent of their East games.
Which means, the Lady Horns must be at their best this evening if they are to return to the Rim Country with a "W."
Both teams have fared well in holiday tournament play. Round Valley was third at the ninth annual Yvonne Johnson Shootout and the Lady Horns took second at the Holiday Hoops, posting a 3-1 record.
While both teams are flexing their early season muscle, one thing is for certain in the East title chase -- the team that emerges victorious this evening will have an inside track to the crown.
Following the trip to Eagar, the Lady Horns return to East action Jan. 19 in Wilson Dome against Show Low. Game time is 6 p.m.