The Lady Longhorns are advancing to the Division III state tournament as a No. 20 “at-large” seed and will play at 7 p.m. tomorrow, Feb. 13, against No. 13 Chinle.
The playing site, Chinle, represents something of a hurdle for coach Jen White and her players because the town’s distance from Payson — 220 miles — represents an almost five-hour bus ride. Also, once the bus exits Interstate 40 near the Arizona-New Mexico border and begins the trek north on reservation land, travel is slow over narrow two-lane roads.
Years ago, when PHS was a member of the Class 4A Grand Canyon Region along with Chinle, Horn basketball players and coaches often bemoaned the long road trips knowing they usually began in the wee hours of the morning and lasted until the early morning hours of the following day. Sometimes, trips were slowed by snow-packed roads, which prompted coaches to consider overnight stays in the gyms of some northern Arizona schools.
In short, the trip is not the ideal way to prep for a state tournament showdown.
But, the Lady Horns are in the state tournament and that is a feat to be celebrated.
The good news in traveling to the reservation town is that the Lady Horns will have the opportunity to play in the Wildcat Den, which has been called the “best high school arena in Arizona” by Arizona Republic sports reporter Richard Obert. The 7,000-seat arena was built in 2006 at a cost of $23 million and is the 15th largest high school gym in the United States.
Players on past PHS teams that played in Chinle during the two schools’ membership in 4A Grand Canyon, 2004-2006, quickly learned that despite the arena’s size, hard core and vociferous fans — usually Navajo — pack the facility every game night giving the Wildcat teams a huge home-court advantage.
If Payson can upset Chinle, the team would advance to a second round game at 3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 16 at Northern Arizona University against No. 4 seeded Tuba City.
The Lady Horns could have advanced to the state tournament as an “automatic” seed and received a first round bye had the team won a first round game in the Section III tournament played Feb. 5 at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale.
Payson, however, was ambushed 67-28, in the game and ousted from the tournament, which relegated PHS to an at-large state berth.