With eight of nine starters returning from last year's team and a state seventh-place ranking under its sliding pads, the Longhorn baseball squad is rampant with optimism.
Just ask coach Teddy Pettet. "The 1999 season looks very promising and I believe we have a legitimate shot at being one of the top teams in the (class) 3A division," he said.
But Pettet offers a bit of caution. "Although that (the state ranking) would normally be a great honor, it still doesn't automatically place us in the state tournament in May," he said. "We will definitely have our work cut out for us due to the fact three teams in our division were ranked ahead of us."
Those teams are top-rated Cactus Shadows, number-three Globe and fourth-ranked Fountain Hills.
With four schools in the pre-season top 10, coaches who vote in the poll are predicting the Central Division to be the most competitive in the 3A conference.
Tinnin only loss
When practices began in late January, Pettet had the enviable task of having to replace only one starter on last year's team that finished 13-14 overall, 6-6 in the Central Division and earned a berth in the state tournament.
Pitcher/infielder Junior Tinnin, an Arizona Coaches Association All-Star selection, graduated last spring and now attends Mesa College.
The Horn lineup has plenty of experience without Tinnin, but will have to improve upon last year's showing. In 1998, the Horns qualified for state by finishing fourth in the Central. This year, the division sends only three teams to the championships; in a playoff shift, the East now sends four --and the Horns will need to be among the top three squads to qualify.
One of the strongest facets of the team in its quest for a ticket to the big show is expected to be the offense.
Last year, Bryan Zumbro, a sophomore, finished with a whopping .547 batting average. Hunter Walden wasn't far behind, hitting .545. With 17 home runs, Walden was the state leader and set a new Arizona home-run record.
Zumbro finished with 16 round-trips and also broke the previous state mark of 12. The two racked up more than 50 RBIs each to lead the Longhorns in almost every statistical category.
Zumbro is practicing with the team and rounding into top form, but Walden is undergoing rehabilitation for a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in basketball, and might not be able to hit the diamond for weeks.
"The injury to Hunter could make it tough for us, but we hope he will recover in time to play the majority of our division contests," Pettet said.
Without Walden, the team could struggle to maintain the team batting average of .394 established in 1998. That mark is now listed in the Arizona high school record books as one of the 10 best team averages ever recorded, regardless of school size classification.
Until Walden's hot bat returns, 1998 varsity stalwarts Brian Cork, Marc Bennett, Jeremy Reynolds, Cade Bradley and Scotty Garduno will have to pick up the slack. Along with Walden and Zumbro, the group formed Payson's version of Murderers' Row.
Last season Cork hit .405, Bennett .375, Reynolds .350, Bradley .340 and Garduno .335.
On the down side, Bennett is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a snow boarding accident, but could be close to full speed when the season opens Tuesday in Payson against Chino Valley.
Others who could contribute at the plate for the Horns are Nicky Brunson and Tyler Pettet, the coach's son. Brunson did not play last year due to an injury, but he has been a standout player in local youth leagues since he was in elementary school.
Aside from a few varsity pitching appearances, Tyler Pettet was a member of the jayvee team last season.
Offensively, coach Pettet says, "We should be potent."
On the hill
A coaching adage declares that good pitching always beats good hitting. If so, as potent as the Horns' aluminum bats are, the team will need a strong mound corps to reach the state tournament.
Tops on the PHS starting rotation will be Zumbro, who was the team's ace much of last season. During the summer, he toured Australia as part of an Arizona all-star team and picked up additional pitching experience against good competition.
Next up in the starting rotation will be Josh McRae and Tyler Pettet.
Only a sophomore, Pettet doesn't throw with much velocity, but somehow befuddles opposing hitters with his junk, as evidenced by a one-hitter he threw last year.
The coach has several other pitchers at his disposal who could see fireman or spot duty. They include Jason Carroll, Eli Kilgore, Randy Vella, Bennett, Cork and possibly Walden.
Junior Joey Klein has also shown some promise, coach Pettet said.
In summing up the corps, Pettet said, "We should be as good as anybody else in the conference, except maybe Cactus Shadows."
Bennett, a two-year starter, has a lock on the catcher position, providing he stays off the snow boards. If he doesn't, Kacy Parker, Cory McRae and Zumbro can also handle backstop chores.
Around the infield, Pettet can mix, match, shuffle and deal as if he were playing cards at the Mazatzal Casino.
First-base candidates are Walden, Zumbro, Josh McRae and possibly Jordan Siverson. Second is up for grabs among Josh McRae, Brunson, Bradley and Tyler Pettet.
Garduno will see most of the action at shortstop, a position he earned last year as an untested freshman.
The hot corner is another unsettled slot with Carroll, Zumbro, McRae and senior Ty Hulbert battling for playing time.
In the outfield, Reynolds returns to left and Cork to center. In right, the coach can call upon Brunson, Hulbert or Tyler Pettet.
In 1998, the Longhorns struggled defensively, committing more errors than Dennis Rodman has hair colors -- or earrings.
"I would hope we will be a more solid defensive team this year due to last year's experience and the summer program," coach Pettet said.
The jayvee team will be coached again by Jerry Daniels, who is fresh off leading the Lady Horn basketball team to the state tournament. Veteran Don McPeek is back to head the freshman squad. Forty-three players turned out to vie for positions on all three teams.
That number, Pettet said, is consistent with the past few seasons.