Any hope the Longhorn boys basketball team has of improving its last place position in the East region standings rests on the return to the lineup of injured co-captains Dakota Marshall and Cody Waterman to lead the Horns during the final five-game stretch run.
With those two on the floor and aligned with fellow co-captain, Ever Figueroa, the Longhorns can be as good as any team in the region.
But without the terrific trio intact, the Longhorns struggle, as evidenced by their eight-game losing streak and 9-12 record (1-6 in the East).
Although the Horns had two East games cancelled last week, vs. region-leading Blue Ridge and Alchesay, PHS did get in a pair of games.
On Jan. 15, Payson fell 68-54 to Snowflake, and on Jan. 19, just before the big snowstorm hit the state and caused postponement of most all prep games, the Horns lost 61-47 to Fountain Hills.
In both games it was turnovers that spelled the demise of the Longhorns. Against Snowflake, Payson committed 24 turnovers, and in the loss to Fountain Hills, the Horns had 20 miscues.
That many mistakes are almost impossible for any prep team to overcome on the scoreboard, regardless of talent.
“Turnovers hurt us tremendously,” said coach Jared Swanson. “Our guys need to understand how valuable each possession is and that we cannot give up the ball so easily.”
The good new in the loss to Fountain Hills is that the 6-foot, 5-inch Marshall returned to the lineup for the first time since fracturing his ankle on Dec. 19.
Marshall scored five points and corralled 12 rebounds, giving strong evidence he is on the mend and could soon become the offensive and defensive force he was at the onset of the season.
“Longhorn faithful can only hope that Dakota will only get better as the region tournament is fast approaching,” Swanson said.
With Marshall and Waterman sidelined, Swanson and assistant Byron Quinlan have turned to the younger players for reinforcements.
Among those to respond has been freshman Chase Walden, who had eight points and seven rebounds in the loss to Fountain Hills.
Another freshman, Tanner Hintze, has also had his moments in the varsity limelight, scoring seven points against Fountain Hills.
The efforts of those two and a handful of other underclassmen prompted Swanson to laud them. “Some of the younger guys are continuing to put more hard work in.”
The steadying force in the absence of the two Longhorn stars has been Figueroa, a senior point guard. Against Fountain Hills, he led the team in scoring with 17 points and managed four rebounds.
In the loss to Snowflake, he was Payson’s version of the Tasmanian Devil, scooting around the Lobos for 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
“Ever’s effort has been solid all season,” said Swanson. “We just need some of the other guys to realize how much hard work needs to be put into every game.”
In the loss to Fountain Hills, the Horns set out determined to break what was then a seven-game losing streak. That feat was a distinct possibility at halftime, with PHS leading the Falcons 26-20.
“The second quarter was possibly our best quarter of the year,” Swanson said. In that stanza, the Horns lit up the scoreboard for 20 points.
But in the third quarter, the Falcons soared back to tie the game 38-38.
Payson had a chance to win with a strong showing in the final quarter, but it was not to be as FH dominated by outscoring the Horns 23-6 on some nifty, long-distance shooting.
“Three big three-pointers gave them a quick, double-digit lead, and the boys from Payson just could not recover,” Swanson said.
Against Snowflake, the Horns fell behind 19-14 early in the game and could never mount the rally needed to battle from behind.
Much of the reason for the loss can be attributed to the team’s failures on the board.
After watching his Horns be outrebounded 39-29, Swanson said, “We are having trouble rebounding, especially with the injury problems we have; but there is no reason we should lose the rebounding battle by 10.”
In the loss, Justin Moratti had one his finest game of this season with 10 points, nine rebounds and four steals.
Zach Blazer contributed four points to go along with his four rebounds, four steals and three assists.