With a 6-1 Division III mark, 1-0 in Section III play, the Longhorns are battling unbeaten Fountain Hills (5-0, 1-0) and several other schools for the top spots in league standings.
Glendale Cortez is showing some spunk with a 3-0 section record, but is just 4-2 overall.
North Pointe Prep is also unbeaten in section play at 2-0, but is 2-2 overall.
Buckeye (5-3, 1-0) and Parker (5-4, 1-0) are among those who could be contending for the S-III honors before the season wraps up.
Although Estrella Foothills is 1-1 in the section and 3-4 in D-III, the Wolves shouldn’t be counted out due to their rich basketball history that includes three state championships under coach Ty Amundsen.
Much of the credit for the Horns’ lofty status can be attributed to first-year coach Joe Sanchez and the top-notch group of assistants and volunteers he has assembled.
The group worked hard in the offseason to prepare the players for the rigors of prep play prompting Sanchez to call them, “awesome.”
But while the coaches and volunteers are huge contributors to the Longhorn cause, it is the players who must make the shots, corral the rebounds, dish out the assists and defend with an unwavering passion.
Thankfully for the Horn cause, the team might have the best group of players to execute the game’s fundamentals since the region championship team of 2008-2009 led by East Player of the Year Cody York, Dakota Marshall, Cody Waterman and Shane Keith.
Among the most prolific of this season’s Longhorns is 6-foot-4-inch junior Tanner Hintze who drew raves as an untested sophomore, eventually earning all-region first team honors.
He hasn’t missed a beat this season, leading the Horns in scoring with a 17.3 points per game average that includes a very commendable 60 percent shooting accuracy. He also is 25 of 33 from the free throw line and leads the team in rebounding averaging 7.1 per game. Leaving little doubt he is a well-polished, all-around player, Hintze also has five steals, two blocked shots and five assists.
While Hintze is the go-to player, he has a strong supporting cast in Cole Belcher, Josh Oakley and Guillermo Lopez.
Belcher, a forward, averages 13.9 ppg on 65 percent shooting from two-point range. He also averages six rebounds a game giving the Horns another player, along with Hintze, to control the boards.
With six steals, he has proven in the early season to be a solid defender.
Oakley, playing the 2-guard position, scores 11.9 ppg giving Payson three players who average in double digits. He also is a decent long-range shooter having hit 6-of-24 three-pointers.
At point guard, Lopez was a team leader last season before a broken thumb incurred in a loss to Snowflake sidelined him late in the season.
This season, he’s returned to his job as floor general and leads the team in assists with 22 while averaging 6.9 ppg.
He also leads the team in three-point accuracy having cashed in on 11 of 21 long-range attempts.
Although he’s only 5-of-11 from the free throw line, he’s a good shooter and his accuracy should improve as the season wears on.
With the starting lineup and playing rotation set, the Horns are primed and ready to improve their record on Dec. 20 when they travel to Fountain Hills to take on a Falcon team that could prove to be Payson’s stiffest competition for the S-III hoop title.
A key to whipping the home-standing Falcons will be to stop, or at least slow, Jeff Bonner, a 6-foot-4-inch senior guard and forward averaging over 24 ppg.
Following the showdown in Fountain Hills, PHS players will enjoy a brief holiday respite before returning to action in the Alvarez Tire Hoop Classic at Bradshaw Mountain High School near Prescott.