State champion high school softball teams almost always sport a common thread -- good pitching.
Those who have it are in the final four. Those without it watch from the stands.
For proof, look no further than Payson High School's Central Division neighbors Santa Cruz and Fountain Hills.
Both have returning pitchers who were among the 3A conference's best last season. With their aces on the mounds once again, both Santa Cruz and Fountain Hills are being touted as state championship contenders.
The Lady Longhorns coaching staff, Greg Larkins and Cheri Brennan, have focused on preparing the team's three hurlers for the rigors of the more than two months of play. The season includes 27 games of regular-season action and two demanding tournaments in which pitchers might have to play in back-to-back games.
It all wraps up with even more demanding divisional and state tournaments, should the Horns qualify.
Set to lead the Horns into the season are pitchers Tiffany Lubken, Monica Mendoza and Sidney Swartwood.
Lubken and Mendoza, Larkins said, "will be in the starting rotation." Swartwood, he said, "will be a closer and as the season progresses will be a strong finisher for the team."
As a sophomore last season, Swartwood was a part-time starter who showed a great deal of promise when not struggling with her control.
Lubken is new to the varsity team but brings plenty of experience, having pitched in Paradise Valley and Phoenix leagues the past few years. The youngster, Larkins says, "has developed a variety of pitches which will keep opponents off balance."
Mendoza was the pitching ace for the Lady Horns jayvee team last season and will receive her first opportunity to start on the varsity level. Her main asset, Larkins said, "is a dominating fastball that is difficult to hit."
Around the horn
The trio of Horn hurlers have a strong battery mate in junior catcher Sage Walden, who was a starter and all-division performer the past two years.
Jennifer McRae has also proven to be an able backstop in preseason drills, coaches say.
A good defense is also an invaluable asset for hurlers, especially those that force hitters into ground balls. The Horns' starting infield is not etched in stone because the team is two-deep at every position.
However, Larkins says he is leaning toward giving Eve Ketchem the nod at first base and possibly Jamie Peace at second.
When not pitching, Swartwood is penciled in as the shortstop. Jennen Shrum could hold down the hot corner.
The coach also has a strong crop of multitalented infielders up from last year's jayvee team. They include Joy Stidham, Alison Crabtree and Brandyce Engler.
The outfield, Larkins predicts, "will be solid" with Nikki School, Jadie Plummer and Carrie Gugino probably starting left to right.
"All three have strong, accurate arms and great gloves," Larkins said.
Shoring up the pitching was a huge goal for the coaching staff, but almost as imperative was improving a hitting attack that was anemic last season when the Horns consistently left runners stranded and never put together any type of offensive consistency.
"Hitting is where we need the work," Larkins said. "However, the potential is there."
Larkins says he is impressed with this year's overall team speed, which will allow the squad to bunt, steal and hit-and-run more often.
"We want to put that speed on base," he said.
Larkins and Brennan had their first opportunity to view the team in live action Feb. 25 in a controlled scrimmage against Winslow on the PHS field.
Larkins came away impressed. "The scrimmage showed the team's hitting is improving," he said. "Last year (scrimmaging Winslow), we did not get anyone to home plate. This year quite a few came across and all (hitters) made solid contact."
Larkins singled out Jamie Peace as "as a surprise who hit well."
But the infield defense, he said, was not up to par. "The team struggled, making more than their share of errors," he said.
The pitching chores were handled by Lubken, Mendoza and Swartwood and all three, Larkins said, "did a great job."
No score or statistics may be kept in scrimmages as mandated by the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
The Lady Horns tipped off the new campaign Tuesday afternoon on the PHS field with a 6-5, come-from-behind win over the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets.
After giving up two gift runs in the second inning on double steals, the Lady Horns rallied late in the game for the win. Mendoza started on the mound and was relieved by Lubken.
The game did not appear on most published schedules because a misunderstanding between Payson and BR school officials resulted when the baseball game between the two schools was canceled last fall. Blue Ridge administrators wanted to cancel only baseball and not softball.
At the last moment, the softball game was rescheduled and played as originally planned.
Payson Athletic Director Barry Smith was able to add the game back to the schedule and not go over the maximum number allowed because Coolidge, only days earlier, had canceled its program and the resulting two games against Payson. "Spring schedules can be a headache," Smith said.
The Lady Horns returned to action Thursday on the PHS diamond in a non-divisional encounter against Chino Valley (results were not available at press time).
This weekend, the teams travels to San Manuel for the Miners' annual tournament. Central Division play will not begin until March 16, when the Horns travel to Miami.