Payson’s girls basketball team has improved in each of Jennifer White’s two seasons as head coach.
After back-to-back losing seasons, the Longhorns went 13-13 in 2011-12. Last season, they finished 14-11 and qualified for the state tournament for the first time in four years.
So White is hoping for more success this season.
“We’re really excited,” White said. “We definitely want to get back to state.”
But the Longhorns face a challenging schedule this season as they find themselves in the same section with defending state champion Winslow, as well as strong Holbrook and Alchesay teams. PHS hasn’t faced any of those teams the last two seasons.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association realignment resulted in scrapping the three large sections of the past two seasons in favor of six smaller sections in each of the four divisions across the state, allowing teams to face all the other opponents in their section, including home and away games against some.
Payson remains in Division III but is now in Section IV with eight other teams: Alchesay, Blue Ridge, Eagar Round Valley, Globe, Holbrook, Show Low, Snowflake and Winslow.
Winslow has won five titles in the last 10 years and eight championships in the last 25 seasons, finishing second nine other times in that period.
Holbrook and Alchesay don’t have the same kind of resume, but they’ve been among the better schools in the division the last several years. Holbrook has averaged 21 wins over the last four seasons. The Roadrunners eliminated Alchesay in the second round of last year’s tournament before Winslow bounced the Roadrunners in the semifinals. Alchesay has averaged 20 wins over the last seven seasons.
The Longhorns play at Holbrook on Jan. 14 and play host to Alchesay and Winslow on Jan. 28 and 30, respectively.
“Our (section) is much more difficult with the realignment,” White said. “We’re excited to play Winslow, Holbrook and Alchesay. Those are three powerhouses that play all the time. Our kids play many sports. So it’s kind of difficult to compete against those teams that have been playing since they were 2 and play year-round. But we’re excited because we have a lot of really athletic kids with a lot of heart.”
Playing strong teams like that should boost the Longhorns’ power ranking, which is used to seed the state tournament.
Another highlight on the schedule is the Payson Holiday Hoops Tournament set for Dec. 27-28.
PHS has a scrimmage at Scottsdale Salt River High on Saturday. The Longhorns will face Salt River, Phoenix Christian and Oro Valley Immaculate Heart for two quarters each beginning at 1:30 p.m. Salt River is the defending Division IV state champion.
“Salt River is a great team,” White said. “It’ll be a great scrimmage to see where we’re at.”
The Horns will then get thrown into the fire as one of the smaller schools in the 16-team Queen Creek Invitational on Monday and Tuesday. They’ll play two games each day. Then they’re off until the home opener against Camp Verde on Dec. 10.
“It’ll be interesting,” White said of the tournament. “They have 16 teams and most of them are from the Valley. It’s a lot of bigger schools that these girls never get the opportunity to play. So it’ll be real exciting.”
It’s the team’s first appearance in the tournament.
“In the past, we’ve always gone to Wickenburg,” White said. “And we did really well last year. We took second in the whole tournament. But we were ready to play some tougher teams. We might not place as well, but the competition will really prepare us for the season and show us kind of how to play against those tougher teams.”
There’s reason for optimism with five players returning from key roles last year, including four starters. Among them are seniors Arianna Paulson, Harley Turnery and Lanie O’Donnell and sophomore Arissa Paulson. Senior Savannah Grassel was the sixth man as a junior.
Ari Paulson was the Longhorns’ point guard as a junior but may be asked to post up since the team doesn’t feature as much height with the graduating of rebounding standout Chioya Hill.
“She’ll be a big loss,” White said of the power forward. “She was very strong. She broke the single-season rebound record (289) for the school last year.
“So Ari’s our point guard but she’s going to play down low, too, because we don’t have a lot of height. That’s going to be one of our weaknesses is our size. But she’s an amazing athlete.”
Turney is back at shooting guard. “She looks really good this year,” White said. “She’s one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever coached and truly a fighter. She’s scrappy and can shoot the ball. She’s going to be great to watch.”
Arissa Paulson, Ari’s sister, will fill the No. 5 or center position once again. “She’s very, very strong,” White said of the youngster. “She’s so talented. She’s a stellar athlete.”
O’Donnell is back at shooting guard. “She’s a little rusty now but when she gets it she can shoot better than any kid I’ve ever seen,” White said. “She can hit it from anywhere.”
Although she wasn’t considered a starter as a junior, Grassel was the first player off the bench. “She’ll probably play a 4, power forward,” White said. “She’s probably one of the hardest working kids I have. She gives you 100 percent every day. She just keeps working.”
Senior Jessie Cline moves into a shooting guard role on varsity after playing junior varsity a year ago. “She’s looked really good the last couple of days,” White said. “She’s got a great shot and a great attitude.”
Joining the five seniors are two juniors and four sophomores.
The juniors are Cori Barnett and Sadie Dunman. Barnett is a power forward who played JV last year. “She’s a beast,” the coach said. “She’s very strong and a hard worker.”
Dunman was a point guard on the JV last year, although she’ll likely see more time as a shooting guard this year. “She’s a great defensive player with a great shot,” White said. “She’s not afraid to shoot the ball from anywhere and doesn’t get frustrated with some of the older players. She’ll be a huge asset to the team.”
The other sophomores are guards Kelsee Stonebrink, Tessa Hintze and Sara Novack. Stonebrink played on the freshman team a year ago but should play a key role on varsity this winter.
“Kelsee Stonebrink is a hustler,” White said. “She has heart. She worked so hard over the summer, has so much heart and she’s not intimidated by the older girls. She will play so hard, even against the best of players, and really just irritate them because she’s just all over them because her defense is so strong. She’ll be a huge asset on defense this year.”
Hintze brings a lot to the team after playing on the JV squad as a freshman. “She’s a great athlete and a very strong all-around player,” the coach said. “She’ll play point guard or shooting guard. She’s got a great shot and can handle the ball. And she’s got a great basketball IQ. She knows the game, which is exciting.”
Both Hintze and Novack saw limited action with the varsity a year ago. Novack was also a JV player most of the year.
“Sara’s just a great player and I’m really excited to see what she develops into,” White said. “I think by her senior year she could be just an amazing athlete. She has a great shot. She knows the game. She’s just an all-around good player. She’s probably going to be a shooting guard, but I might be able to play her down low since we’re missing so much size.”
The coach said the team features a great group of young ladies.
“I’ve never worked with a more well-rounded group of girls,” she said. “They are athletic, they are very focused on their academics and they’re all-around just great people that I would want my daughters to look up to.
“And, to me, that’s the most important thing about coaching is we’re not just coaching to go to state, but we’re coaching these girls that are going to go out and be just amazing citizens and amazing human beings. And we have some of the best on this team. So I’m excited about that.”
Her husband, Denver White, is back for his third season as varsity assistant coach. Miles Huff is in his third year as the JV girls head coach. He also helps with the varsity. And J.B. Thornhill is beginning his second season as the freshman girls coach.
“We have a great coaching staff,” Jennifer White said.