With just one starter back from last year’s 10-17 team, this year’s Payson High varsity basketball team is inexperienced.
But third-year head coach Joe Sanchez said that isn’t a concern as the Longhorns prepare for the season-opening Sedona Red Rock Tournament this Thursday-Saturday.
“I’m not worried about the experience at all,” Sanchez said. “We’ve had 10 of these guys committed to the summer and fall league and we went against some Division 1 and 2 schools at Arizona Christian University. We were by far the smallest school in the fall league and we beat three huge schools.”
Payson defeated Division 1 Phoenix Camelback and Phoenix Alhambra and Division 2 Phoenix Thunderbird.
None of those schools are in Payson’s section in the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s realignment. But it should prove to be a challenge for the Longhorns, just the same. PHS finds itself in Division 3 Section 4 with Globe, Holbrook, Lakeside Blue Ridge, Round Valley, Show Low, Snowflake, Whiteriver Alchesay and Winslow. Snowflake has gone 52-13 in reaching the semifinals the past two years. Holbrook won the Class 3A state title in 2011 and reached Division 3 semifinals in 2012. Show Low reached the quarterfinals last year.
There are six sections in Division 3. Twenty-four teams qualify for the state tournament beginning Feb. 18. The top eight seeds earn a first-round bye.
Two-time defending Division 3 state champion Gilbert Christian has moved up to Division 2. But plenty of strong teams remain in the division, including Fort Defiance Window Rock, which was 27-3 last year, in Section 1; Goodyear Estrella Foothills in Section 2; Chandler Valley Christian, which reached the finals last year; semifinalist Scottsdale Christian; and quarterfinalist Fountain Hills in Section 3.
Senior Austin Young is the lone returning starter for the Longhorns. The four-year varsity player and second-year starter is back at point guard after averaging 5.0 points, 3.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds as a junior.
Sanchez said Young is obviously a key. But he hopes his teammates won’t wait around for him to do something.
“Defense is going to win games for us,” the coach said. “There are some times we’ll struggle offensively. If Austin struggles, we feel we’re going to struggle. We are concerned we will have some offensive droughts. But that’s where we feel our defense and guard play will keep us in ball games.
“Austin gets us into our offense. He’s just a smart basketball player. But there are times guys watch him instead of getting involved, and that’s what we’re challenging these guys to do. We don’t want that to be an issue this year. They’re getting better at being aggressive. Austin feels like he’s got more weapons than he’s ever had.”
Sanchez is eager to see senior center Kain England back in uniform after he missed his junior year. He started on the junior varsity as a freshman and sophomore. “We saw what he can do against some really good talent in the fall and summer leagues,” Sanchez said.
Senior Jared Varner should start at power forward after being in the varsity rotation as a junior, while also starting on the JV. “He’s our garbage guy,” Sanchez said. “He gets those rebounds and easy buckets. He works hard. His work ethic is definitely there.”
Sanchez expects sophomore Chaz Davis to start at shooting guard, while also serving as the backup point guard after starting on the JV and seeing limited action with the varsity as a freshman. “He saw what it was like,” Sanchez said. “He has a high basketball IQ.”
Junior Matt Davis is slated to start at small forward/shooting guard after coming off the varsity bench as a sophomore and starting on the JV. “He’s probably our best shooter,” the coach said.
Junior Spencer Herrera is the first guard off the bench. He also came off the varsity bench as a sophomore. He and sophomore guard Ruben Estrada, another JV starter in 2012-13 who is the starting two guard on the JV this season, are two key defensive players this season. “They’re going to be coming off the bench guarding the other team’s best guard,” Sanchez said.
At 6-foot-5, senior William Youngberg is the team’s tallest player. He transferred from Alchesay, where he played on the JV as a junior. “He did very well against us at the JV level,” Sanchez said. “He’s very raw. He’s kind of our muscle guy. He’ll be kind of an enforcer in there, get some rebounds and get some fouls.”
Those are expected to be the eight players getting the most minutes. The roster also features senior shooting guards Darren Moffet and Jacob Dixon; junior center Ryan Wacker and junior forward Braden Hancock; and sophomore guard/forward Hunter Harrison. Joining Estrada as JV starters this year are Wacker, Hancock and Harrison.
Sanchez is excited about the Longhorns’ backcourt talent.
“Our guard play is very strong,” he said. “We’re very confident in our three starters and the two guards coming off the bench, Ruben and Spencer. We don’t feel like we lose anything defensively when we go to those guys. Our defense is what’s gonna win us games.”
After the Sedona tournament, the Longhorns head home for three games. They open the regular schedule against Camp Verde on Dec. 10, entertain Cottonwood Mingus on Dec. 12 and Fountain Hills on Dec. 13.
The tournament will be a good early gauge for the team.
“I think this tournament will kind of show us where we’re really at,” Sanchez said. “We feel pretty confident in what we have, but this will be our first test. I’m looking to go to this tournament and win the tournament.”
Sanchez said after the team lost in the opening round of the state tournament in his first season, then failed to qualify last season, the Longhorns want more this winter.
“We want to go further,” the coach said. “Our best are very competitive and will be very disappointed if we don’t at least get to the second round of the state tournament.
“This is the most committed team I’ve had. They want to be there all the time as a team. These guys like each other and want to be in the gym working hard.”