The rugged and winding road to the state basketball championship travels through Safford.
Which means, if the Longhorns are to play in the 3A title game, the Horns must find a way to navigate past the Bulldogs in a semifinal clash at 3:45 p.m. Feb. 21 at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale.
The championship game will be played at 8 p.m. Feb. 23, also in Glendale.
The Dogs enter the final-four game sporting 28-1 credentials, a South region championship and state tournament wins over Round Valley, 77-47, and Parker, 70-61.
Payson advances with a 23-6 mark and the East region crown in tow. In the opening two rounds of state, the Horns whipped Holbrook, 64-45, and Chino Valley, 47-40.
In the state semifinal bracket opposite Payson vs. Safford, Estrella Foothills is matched up against Chinle.
What is outwardly striking about the final-four clashes is that the teams were all seeded, at the onset of the postseason, one through four.
Such accurate seeding rarely occurs in prep sports as evidenced by the 3A girls final-four bracket where the five, six and seven seeds have upset their way into the semifinals.
Among the 3A boy's teams Estrella took a No. 1 seed, Safford was No. 2 and Payson earned a three-seed. Chinle was awarded the fourth.
Having the top four seeds reach the semifinals is a feather in the cap of the conference officials who called last spring for a power-point system.
The new method has been the brunt of much criticism this school year, but in 3A boys basketball, the seedings were on target.
That, however, was not the situation in 3A football where a No. 5 seeded team, Show Low, eventually won the championship.
Watching the Dogs
The Longhorn coaching staff and players had the opportunity to scout Safford in the Dogs' state semifinal win Feb. 14 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
PHS coach Kenny Hayes came away from the game impressed with Safford's well-rounded team that features several good athletes, including 6-foot-7-inch Luis Villaba.
"He is a big strong kid," Hayes said. "He looks like a football player."
But even with good size and bulk, Villaba hasn't dominated on the floor. He's Safford's fourth-leading scorer (9.5 ppg) and averages just 3.5 rebounds per game.
The Safford offense is led by the one-two punch of Ryan Gaura (13 ppg) and Sean Williams (12.1 ppg).
In addition to being strong floor leaders, both are good outside shooters capable of giving the Horns fits from beyond the three-point line.
Mitch Olsen is also an offensive threat averaging 11.3 ppg.
"Safford basically has one big kid and four good guards," Hayes said.
Scouting reports indicate Safford plays a motion offense similar to Payson's scheme and that defensively, the team will play both man-to-man and zones, including a full court press. Safford also runs an effective fast break whenever the opportunity presents itself.
At the onset of the practice week, Hayes said he and his staff were continuing to formulate a game plan against Safford.
PHS coughs and sputters
In the Horns semifinal win over a Chino Valley team that entered the tournament clutching a No. 6 seed, the offense misfired on all cylinders.
"We played well defensively but not on the offensive end," Hayes said.
In the opening quarter, the Horns generated a miniscule seven points, a trio of which came on Rob Walker's three-pointer.
In the second quarter, the Horns turned up the offensive intensity a tad, scoring 15 points. But even with that mild outburst, the Horns only led 22-21 at halftime. By outscoring Chino 25-19 in the second half, Payson was able to advance in the tournament.
Free throws a big help
However, PHS would not have been celebrating the victory had not the Horns outscored the Cougars 20-11 from the free- throw line.
Senior guard Levi Neal, who finished with seven points, was particularly effective at the line, hitting five of six attempts.
Tyler Savage led all scorers with nine points. Cody York tallied nine and Walker had eight.