Although coach Jared Swanson and his Longhorn basketball players are focused on the upcoming Alvarez Tire Hoops Classic at Bradshaw Mountain, they also harbor questions about what’s occurring in the baffling East region title chase.
The queries are because no team is dominating early season play, and the region championship appears up for grabs.
Thus far, the region’s top guns are Blue Ridge (7-2; 2-0) and Payson (7-2; 2-0), but the Horns hold the edge in the rivalry, having beaten the Yellow Jackets 46-44 in the Winslow Cake Chevrolet Shoot Out.
Of course, as close as the outcome of that game was, either team could emerge victorious when the two clash again Jan. 12 in Wilson Dome.
The real mystery in the East surrounds the Alchesay Falcons, who are 5-3 overall and 2-1 in the region.
Alchesay had two easy wins over Snowflake, and pushed Blue Ridge to the brink before falling 89-85, but also lost 71-67 to Class 1A Heber Mogollon.
The Falcons are traditionally very good in basketball, and should never be counted out, thanks in part to their run and gun style that usually cranks out big offensive numbers.
Against Thatcher, the Falcons surpassed the magical 100-point mark, winning 102-84 in a game in which both teams must have been playing matador defense.
Round Valley is also an unknown, mostly because the team lost its first game of the season to Chinle, and then went on a seven-game winning streak that included a revenge victory over Chinle in the championship of the White Mountain Tournament.
After that impressive win, the wheels came off the bugle boys’ wagon, as RV lost to Blue Ridge 71-55, Show Low 64-57, and Class 1A Joseph City 68-66.
So just how good are the Elks?
As good as they were during the winning streak or as lowly as they were losing to tiny Joseph City High School?
The answer probably won’t be known until after the holiday break, when East region hardwood wars are in full swing.
Show Low is 6-5 overall and 1-1 in the East and has a pair of standouts in Rathan Ricedorf and Josh Weeks. However, the Cougars didn’t appear to be the equal of the Horns in a 64-51 loss on Dec. 15.
Show Low rebounded from that defeat two days later to whip Round Valley 64-57.
With a month of play in the record books, Blue Ridge and Payson appear to be the teams to beat in the East. Alchesay, Show Low and Round Valley, however, can’t be counted out.
Snowflake is winless (0-3) in the region and has lost three straight games, but the Lobos have a proud athletic tradition that makes them a threat, no matter how slow their start has been.
On to Bradshaw
The Longhorns return to the Wilson Dome practice court tomorrow, Dec. 26, to prepare for the Alvarez Tire Hoops Classic that tips off at 10 a.m., Monday, Dec. 28 against Peoria Liberty at Bradshaw Mountain High School.
The Horns play again at 2:45 p.m. the same day against Tucson Palo Verde.
Payson will eventually play three more games in the fray, for a total of five in a three-day span. Game times and opponents will depend on results of the first two games.
The fate of the Longhorns at Bradshaw might depend on senior Dakota Marshall’s ankle.
The 6-foot, 5-inch center-forward twisted his ankle, which was already sore, Dec. 18 against Fountain Hills.
At the time he was injured, Payson was leading 9-0. Without him in the lineup, Payson eventually lost a 54-45 decision to the homestanding Falcons.
If he does return for the Bradshaw tournament, Payson’s trio of Ever Figueroa, Cody Waterman and Marshall will be intact.
All season long, the three — who are also team captains — have been the heart and soul of the offense and defense.
In the loss to Fountain Hills, Waterman was on fire, scoring 22 points and corralling 13 rebounds.
As effective as Waterman and Marshall have been, it is Figueroa, a point guard, who pulls the trigger for the offense.
His quick-dribble drives to the basket and penetration into the paint before dishing off have made him one of the top guards in the region.
His quickness was evident in the Longhorns’ win over Blue Ridge.
With the score tied 44-44 and less than a minute remaining on the game clock, Figueroa took an inbounds pass, stalled for a few seconds, and then drove to the basket, sinking a 10-foot jump shot with three seconds remaining.
The hoop proved to be the winning score.
Behind Waterman, Marshall and Figueroa, the Horn offense has clicked, but first-year coach Jared Swanson believes it is defense that will carry the team.
“Players can have all the offensive fire-power in the world, but if they cannot play defense, they’ll have a tough time winning against good teams,” he said.