With only two returning starters from last year’s Payson High boys basketball team, the Longhorns appear to be an underdog in the chase for the Division III state championship.
But don’t tell second-year coach Joe Sanchez that — he’s optimistic the team has the firepower and defense needed to make a run into the postseason.
His confidence is partly due to the presence of Tanner Hintze and Guillermo Lopez, both starters last season
During the 2011-2012 campaign, Hintze led the team in scoring, averaging 15.4 ppg, which was sixth highest in Section III and 12th best in Division III.
Most of his points came in the low blocks where he was able to muscle his way to the hoop for layups, turnaround jumpers, put backs or be fouled.
In fact, he led the Horns in free throw attempts with 122, making 87. That mark was third highest in S-III.
Hintze also led the Horns on the boards, averaging 5.4 rebounds per game.
As a sophomore two years ago, Hintze was named 3A East All-Region First Team after leading the Horns in scoring (12.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.7 per game).
This year, Hintze will play both the 4 and 5 positions, which means he’ll spend most of his time in the low blocks.
“He’s our only legitimate 5,” Sanchez said.
Among Hintze’s strengths is the fact that he can play with his back to the basket or facing it.
Last season, Lopez, a 5-foot-9-inch junior point guard, averaged 6.3 points, two assists and 1.5 steals per game.
His finest outing might have been in a 75-60 loss to Valley Christian in the first round of the S-III tournament.
He finished with a season-high 19 points, hitting 2-of-6 three-pointers and 6-of-7 free throws. He also had two steals and a blocked shot.
As a point guard, Lopez is the player who pulls the trigger in the offense, setting up other players for easy shots and breaking presses when opponents decide to pressure defensively.
It’s also his responsibility to take care of the ball and limit the number of turnovers the Horns commit.
This year, Lopez could have some relief in the form of 5-foot, 10-inch Austin Young who can play the point or the 2-guard position.
In addition to having Young available, Sanchez expects Eric Vohs, Bubba Nielson and Justin Carlen to contribute.
Of those, Nielson might be the most versatile in that he can play all the positions except point.
Carlen, a starter on junior varsity last season, will play at 4 or 5 and Vohs the 4 slot.
Ty Davis is also a low post player with the ability to hold down the 4 or 5 positions.
Darren Moffett, Matt Davis and Jared Varner will also be varsity regulars.
Moffett is a junior newcomer, having played in the Valley last season.
The battle for the 11th and final spot on the varsity is a three-way battle between Braden Hancock, Spencer Herrera and Chaz Davis.
Hancock and Herrera are sophomores and Davis is a freshman.
This season, fans might notice a bit of strategy change in the way the Longhorns play.
“We will run the flex offense, it’s more structured and fits us,” said Sanchez.
He explains the flex as a motion offense in which all five players are constantly moving. “If anyone is standing for more than 2 to 3 seconds, they are doing something wrong.”
Although the Horns will be in a more disciplined offense than last year’s freelance attack, the team will run and gun given the opportunity.
“We will fast break if it is there,” Sanchez said.
Defensively, the Horns will play mostly man-to-man with occasional presses mixed in.
“We will pick and choose when we want to press, probably after a whistle, but we will focus on our half-court defense,” the coach explained.
In addition to making some strategy changes, Sanchez ramped up conditioning and the competition during the past three weeks of preseason practices and tryouts.
“Some of the kids who have been in the program for four years say this was hardest tryouts they’d ever been through,” Sanchez said. “They had to run a timed mile; some didn’t make it.”
Also this season, he continued, “We are committed to more strength conditioning and tougher practices because I think at the end of last season we kind of ran out of gas.”
On hand to help the head coach carry out his mission is a staff consisting of Ryan St. John, Cameron Davis, Randy Herrera and Cole Belcher.
St. John will be the varsity assistant, Davis the junior varsity coach and Herrera the freshman mentor. Belcher, a star on last year’s team, will assist on the freshman team.
The Longhorns opened the season Nov. 20 with a 65-30 win over Globe and will return to action Nov. 27 at Mogollon.