In preseason drills, Lady Longhorn softball coach Greg Larkins said his team's hitting attack must improve over last year's anemic showing if the team is to reach its goal of a top-three finish in the Central Division and a berth in the state tournament.
After watching his offense struggle through the San Manuel Invitational last weekend, Larkins might be wondering if this team is facing the same offensive woes experienced last year.
The tournament -- in which the Horns played four games is less than two days -- was a golden opportunity for Lady Horns to pick up invaluable playing time
And, with oodles of at-bats and plenty of swings, the players could tune up their hitting skills. But the Horn bats never heated up, producing only 16 hits -- all singles -- on the way to a 1-3 record.
"Not much hitting. We had our troubles," assistant varsity coach Cheri Brennen said.
Payson (2-3 overall) opened with a 7-3 loss to Palo Verde Christian Academy, then fell to powerful Show Low, 11-0, in a game shortened on the 10-run rule.
In the third round, the Horns rallied to beat Palo Verde High School 6-5, but only hours later closed out the tourney with a 7-1 loss to Sahuarita.
Rendering the tournament even more frustrating for Larkins and Brennen was the 25 strike-outs committed by Horn hitters and the total lack of extra base hits.
The absence of a hitting attack was never more evident than it was in the loss to Show Low in which the Horns had a runner in scoring position only once. That opportunity came in the third inning when Carie Gugiano was hit by a pitch and advanced to third on a single by Alison Crabtree.
She was left stranded, however, when the inning ended on a two-out infield grounder. Crabtree's single was one of only two base knocks the Horns produced. The other was a second inning single by Jennifer McRae.
In the crucial fifth inning when the Horns needed runs to shorten Show Low's lead to less than 10 and allow play to continue, PHS hitters went down one-two-three on strike-outs.
Payson's inability to hit against Show Low, Brennen said, was due in part to great Cougar pitching.
"Not many teams will hit her," she said.
The SL girl was such a proficient pitcher, Brennen said, a solid hitting philosophy might be to bunt or choke up on the bat and punch the ball.
If the Horns are going to reach post-season play and be successful, the team will have to play on even terms with squads like tradition-rich Show Low, where coach Stan Bingham has built a solid program that is a perennial state contender.
Even in the Horns' lone win, Payson bats were strangely silent, generating only five hits. Jadie Plummer paced the team to the win with two hits in four plate appearances. Swartwood, Crabtree and McRae had one hit each.
Most of the Horn runs were generated by walks and Palo Verde errors.
The Horn "O" did receive a shot in the arm from senior Joy Stidham in the loss to Sahuarita. In three trips to the plate, Stidham swatted singles to left field and right field, sandwiched around a fielder's choice.
Payson's single run was scored in the sixth when Swartwood singled, advanced on a sacrifice and scored on an error. Still, Payson sent only four hitters to the plate during the inning.
One bat the Lady Horns might have to do without in upcoming games is that of Plummer, who injured her knee sliding into a base. The prognosis for Plummer's recovery and return to the lineup is uncertain.
In addition to shoring up the hitting attack, the coaching staff's focus in preseason practices was to tune up the hurling crew of Tiffany Lubken, Monica Mendoza and Sidney Swartwood.
Swartwood and Lubken joined forces to hurl effectively in the win over Palo Verde.
Mendoza and Lubken absorbed the loss to Sahuarita.
Against Show Low, Mendoza was ticketed with the loss after giving up seven hits and three bases on balls. However, only three of the 11 runs the Cougars scored were earned.
Lubken went the distance in the loss to PV Christian.
Payson's mound efforts, Brennen said, were adequate but should improve with additional experience.
The Lady Horns have plenty of after-school practice sessions to improve their offense before all-important Central Division play tips off at 3:30 p.m., March 16, in Miami against the Vandals. Central action continues March 23 when the team travels to Globe for another 3:30 p.m. encounter.
The team will not be in action in Payson until April 1 when Santa Cruz visits PHS diamond.