As the first-year varsity head coach of the Longhorn boys basketball team, Kenny Hayes must have set up connections with the divine spirits who have the power to unleash hardwood phenomenons.
"I just prayed hard to the basketball gods and it all worked out," he said minutes after learning the Horns had miraculously risen to a state three-seed from No. 4.
By being seeded one slot higher than originally anticipated, the Longhorns move into a tournament bracket that doesn't contain No. 1 and state championship favorite Estrella Foothills.
Which means, if Payson plays Foothills it won't be until the state championship game.
If the Horns had remained a four-seed, PHS would have had to get past Estrella in the state semifinals to reach the championship.
The Longhorns were able to move up one slot in the state power rankings -- which are used to seed teams into state -- on Feb. 8 at the conclusion of the North regional tournament.
In it, Chinle -- which had been seeded No. 3 for the past month -- lost to underdog Monument Valley.
That defeat dropped Chinle into the No. 4 slot previously occupied by Payson.
The Horns, in turn, moved up a slot.
Payson will now open pursuit of a state championship at noon today, Tuesday, in Walkup Skydome on the
campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
The team's first round opponent is No. 14 Holbrook of the North region.
The two teams are no strangers to one another -- they met Dec. 21 in a Wilson Dome barnburner. In the non-region showdown, Payson won 86-80 in overtime.
In taking on the Roadrunners a second time, Hayes is expecting another shoot out, "they love to run and gun."
In the first game, forward/center Matt Wilson used his height (6-foot, 6-inches) to battle inside for a game high 20 points. Cody York finished with 18.
A similar effort today from the two would help the Horns slip past the Roadrunners and into the state quarterfinals.
That game would be played 8:30 a.m., Feb. 12, at Northern Arizona University.
The opponent would be the winner of a first round game between No. 6 Chino Valley and No. 11 Fountain Hills.
A win in the quarterfinals would propel Payson into the state semifinals Feb. 27 at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale.
If the Horns reach the state championship, the game is set for 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Glendale arena.
Last year, under former coach Chuck Hardt, PHS reached the title game, only to lose to Fountain Hills.
The Horns enter the state tournament armed with some of the impressive credential in school basketball history. They include a 3A polls fourth-place ranking, 20-6 record, a region regular season championship and an East tournament title.
The Horns earned the tournament crown Feb. 8 in Springerville-Eagar with an 82-47 victory over runner-up Round Valley.
During the course of the regular season, PHS completely dominated East region competition posting 10-0 records. During most games, the team rolled to impressive wins by jumping out to early leads and then coasting to victory.
The team's talent and accomplishments didn't go unnoticed by East coaches.
At a Feb. 7 meeting in Eagar-Springerville, coaches tapped four PHS players all-region first team, two honorable mention and three to the All-East tournament team.
Also, Hayes was voted the East's "Coach of the Year."
All-region first team players from Payson included Robert Walker, Levi Neal, Cody York and Shane Keith.
Honorable mention recognition was doled out to Tyler Savage and Matt Wilson.
Walker, York and Wilson were named to the all-tournament team.