A reorganization of the high school leagues will pit Payson against longtime rival schools from Eastern Arizona. So as Payson High School (PHS) coaches and athletes prepare for the 2013-14 season, the coaches have to plan for strategies to cope with a different cast.
After fielding complaints about long drives and lopsided matchups, state officials have realigned the divisions and sections once again. Payson will find itself back in head-to-head league play matchups with old rivals like Show Low and Blue Ridge, while still playing some much larger Valley schools. For some sports, the realignment should make it easier to win more victories — for others the new categories will mostly bring tougher challenges.
Some teams, like basketball and baseball, spent the summer in training and skill-building tournaments and competitions. Others — including football — have struggled to get players focused on the preseason training routine so important to starting the season with wins, which often makes all the difference in the end.
PHS varsity basketball coach Joe Sanchez is “excited for the coming season” after a positive summer that included the unanticipated return of veteran players.
“At first we thought it was going to be a young team, but we’ve had several older players return after taking a year off,” said Sanchez. “We have nine guys who have made it for every practice. I can’t get them out of this gym.”
The varsity team gathers every Monday and Thursday night for fundamentals training and even a few of the freshman and JV players plan to practice with the older players, which strengthens the younger, upcoming athletes.
As for their list of rivals, last year’s reconfiguration to a Division III Section IV alignment means the Longhorn basketball teams can look forward to some good competition with old friends in the following months. Sanchez shared his enthusiasm regarding a few opponents in particular. “Blue Ridge should prove to be a good competitor with most of the same players from last year. Show Low is a strong team and they didn’t lose any players this summer. Snowflake is always a guaranteed challenge.”
Fortunately, the Longhorns have some strong players of their own. Sanchez says the entire coaching staff is impressed with the 2013-14 lineups. The crew will continue to hone their skills, the 2013-14 boys and girls basketball seasons start in December with a home game series against Camp Verde.
The same sunny outlook holds true for the Longhorn varsity baseball coach Brian Young.
Young said, “I couldn’t ask for a better team for the upcoming season. Basically we have every player but one coming back from last year’s team that advanced to the state semi-finals. I am especially pleased with the players because I know so many of them are working hard over the summer and will continue to do that until we start the season in February. Things will be easier as we start next season because the players have spent a year around me and they know what the expectations will be. We should be able to jump right into things at practice and that will make a difference.”
Last year the PHS baseball team saw an AIA reassignment to Division III Section 2. Thanks to this reconfiguration, the team will now face a lengthy lineup of worthy opponents, including Fountain Hills.
“Fountain Hills is the defending champion,” said Young, “and we know a lot about them. We played them three times last season and watched them play in the state tournament as well. They are bringing a very strong team back that includes two of the three co-players of the year from our section last season (the third was our player Nick McMullen). They will have three really good pitchers, and a bunch of guys who can swing the bat. Honestly they are kind of our motivating factor. Our players know that we have to continue to get better to compete with Fountain Hills.”
Although some teams struggle to get players motivated for preseason training sessions, this baseball team has played perhaps a dozen games over the break.
“We played about 12 games as a team this summer and had almost everybody that will be with us next season playing,” said Young. “We played some good competition and used it as a time for guys to work on some individual skills. I think it was a fruitful experience for our players. When you have a group of guys like I have, you want to spend as much time with them as you can because the game is so fun. Not only are they good players, but they are a really good group of guys too.”
Young said the enthusiasm and involvement in the summer games helped maintain the high team morale. “It helps to have a little success, but I feel like we are in the growing stages of our program and good things are happening.”
PHS baseball will kick off the season with an old rival — Mingus — early next year. “We played a double header with Mingus this summer and I have a lot of respect for Coach Bob Young. He is a really good guy who always turns out very fundamentally sound teams. They have also moved up to Division II above us. I could see a strong rivalry developing between Mingus and us. We know that they will be good and a tough start to the season for us,” said Young.
Most of the PHS team sports are already getting ready for the coming season, through both summer practices and training and competitive events.
For example, a lineup of determined Lady Longhorn volleyball hopefuls participated in an offseason June tournament, coming off the team’s record-breaking season last year that fell just short of a state championship. The team is looking at a strong list of players and changes in the coaching staff, including the shift to respected, longtime Coach Arnold Stonebrink, now supported by three of his brightest and best graduated players and his wife, Penni. The Lady Horns are looking at a Division III Section V reconfiguration that includes a handful of Valley schools. They will head south for the first time Sept. 3 for a season opener against Saguaro High School.
Payson High School wrestlers kept their muscles warm and honed their skills over the summer break. Earlier this month, the Longhorns played host to a heap of training and information at the Arizona Intensive High Altitude wrestling camp. The Arizona Intensive is a week-long, structured clinic geared toward a high-level individualized approach to training students. The Longhorn wrestling team will also play a reconfigured lineup due to a Division III Section I alignment that includes a handful of mountain teams including Blue Ridge, Flagstaff and Coconino.
While most of the PHS sports are blooming with anticipation, unfortunately, the Longhorn football squad has struggled during the summer. PHS football coach Jake Swartwood is working hard to increase participation in summer weight training and practice drills, knowing his players need to get the training while they can. The Longhorn football teams kick off the season on Aug. 29 with two evening games against Wickenburg. Due to the new 2013-15 section placement by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, Payson will also be back on the field with longtime Eastern rivals Show Low, Blue Ridge and Snowflake. Along with the high mountain lineup, the six-team alignment also includes southern schools Globe and Fountain Hills.
Unlike the football team, the boys and girls cross country teams will likely see an improvement in their scores and morale as they move out of the reservation-dominated sections and on to a Section III alignment, that includes a healthy lineup of competitors including Fountain Hills, Buckeye and Tempe High School. While this move means Longhorn runners won’t be competing with virtually unbeatable Hopi and Navajo rivals in the sectional finals, with a 750-student enrollment they will still compete against a majority of much larger schools — which holds its own challenges.
Regardless of opponents, divisions and sections, the best way for Rim athletes to make it and stay at the top of the food chain is through discipline, practice and perseverance. Payson Longhorns — and their fans — can rest easy knowing that our hometown superstars are hard at work (for the most part) and putting their nose to the grindstone in the name of victory.