Just how the Longhorn boys basketball team’s 1979 Class B State Championship “Gold Ball” trophy disappeared from the school trophy case and was found years later in an abandoned, disheveled Phoenix apartment is a mystery that has coaches, former players and administrators scratching their collective noggins in disbelief.
It seems no one on campus realized the championship trophy was missing until last spring when PHS counselors Don Heizer and Judy Michel were attending an education conference at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.
During the pair’s time at the conference, Heizer and Michel took time out to visit two PHS alumni, R.C. LaHaye and Larry Wilbanks, now wrestling coaches at GCU.
During the meeting with the coaches, Heizer and Michel were told there was something they had that needed to be returned to Payson High.
“We went into their (LaHaye’s and Wilbanks’) office and there was the trophy — Larry had it sitting on a shelf,” said Heizer. “It was kind of in bad shape — the AIA insignia was sliding off and it was dirty and tarnished.”
Heizer admits he was shocked seeing two former PHS wrestling stars in possession of a state basketball championship trophy that everyone believed was in the school’s trophy case.
Following moments of dead silence, LaHaye and Wilbanks explained to the two bewildered PHS counselors how they had come to have the trophy.
They said, a man who knew they were from Payson brought the trophy to them and asked they return it to PHS.
LaHaye remembers the incident well, “Our aquatics director here (at GCU) was helping his daughter move into an apartment and while cleaning it, they found the trophy.”
The director knew that both LaHaye and Wilbanks had been raised in Payson, so he delivered the trophy to the two asking them to return it to PHS.
“Can you believe this story? Really weird isn’t it?” LaHaye asked. “What a small world.”
Probably most difficult to understand is why no one noticed the trophy was missing.
Chuck Hardt, an assistant coach of the state championship team, reacted in disbelief when he was told midweek the trophy had been MIA for years.
“I had no idea it was gone,” he said. “I’m trying to remember the last time I saw it.”
The former coach says to the best of his recollection the last time he saw the “Gold Ball” was in the spring of 2004 at then-America West Arena in Phoenix during an AIA-sponsored 25th anniversary celebration honoring the 1979 team.
In fact, Hardt has a team picture from that celebration that shows Farrell Hoosava holding the trophy.
Hardt said he assumed the trophy had been returned to the PHS trophy case but now has his doubts.
If the trophy has been missing since that celebration, it vanished for eight years without anyone noticing.
After Heizer returned the trophy to its rightful home, his next task was to have it refurbished. That responsibility fell on the shoulders of then PHS teacher Doug Eckhardt who polished and rebuilt the trophy, restoring it to original condition.
Today, it’s housed in the locked trophy case located just outside the PHS administrative office.
Heizer says almost every time he passes by the case, he eagle eyes the trophy making sure there never again is a mystery as baffling as the vanishing gold ball.
For the 25th anniversary celebration, 11 of the 13 championship team members were on hand to relive a season in which the team finished 21-5 overall and won the B Central Division title with a 7-1 mark.
In the state tournament, Payson opened with a 77-63 win over Antelope. In the semifinals the Horns scalped the St. Johns Redskins 61-46.
With two state wins, the Longhorns qualified for the championship showdown against a very talented Williams team that was a huge favorite to whip PHS.
On the Vikings’ roster were two of the finest athletes to ever come out of Arizona — brothers Johnny and Billy Hatcher. After high school, Billy went on to have a long professional baseball career with the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs.
In the state finale, Longhorn players were obviously unimpressed by the Vikings’ athletic talent, eventually nipping Williams 49-48 on Jeff Pettet’s two last-second free throws.
The 1979 championship is the only state title PHS has won in basketball — either boys or girls.