Refusing to fall by the wayside when the Arizona Baseball Coaches' Association dropped them from the top-10 ranking they'd held most of season, the Payson Longhorns reached the prep-baseball's state tournament elite final four, with an 8-0 win over River Valley and a 5-4 triumph over Safford.
With the tournament victories, the Horns will continue their quest for a Class 3A state championship at 3:30 p.m. Friday on the Padres Field at the Peoria Sports Complex. Payson's opponent will be the East Division Winslow Bulldogs, who advanced with an 8-5 opening round win over North champion Monument Valley and an 8-5 triumph over Globe.
In the other semifinal game in Peoria, number-one ranked and undefeated Cactus Shadows takes on second-ranked Benson.
The winners of the two semi-final games clash at 3 p.m. Saturday in Peoria for the state championship.
The key to a win over Winslow and a possible shot at Payson's first state baseball championship will be to approach the games with the same positive mental attitude shown last weekend, coach Ted Pettet said.
"Every player on the team contributed in some way this past weekend," he said. "Whether they were in the game or not, everybody was excited to be a part of the team, which is important to success."
There were plenty of heroes for the Longhorns in the twin state wins, but the player that stands tallest was junior right-handed hurler Bryan Zumbro.
Summing up the youngster's efforts, the coach said, "We rode his arm. He threw 11 of the 14 innings the team played in two days."
The superlatives continued to flow for the strong-armed hurler. "He turned in one of the best Longhorn mound efforts ever by allowing only six hits and four runs during the 11 innings."
During the impressive stint, he also fanned 14 and gave up only one walk.
The highlight of Zumbro's mound effort occurred in the second-round win over Safford after he struggled early, giving up five hits and four runs in the top of the first.
Throughout the remaining six frames, Zumbro was virtually untouchable, hurling no-hit, no-run balls that allowed the Horns to rally for the come-from-behind win.
Dominating the opposing hitters as if he owned them lock, stock and barrel, Zumbro set down the Dog hitters in five of the six innings in order.
In addition to his Herculean hurling, Zumbro swung the game winning bat against Safford, swatting an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth that scored the winning run.
The Horns might not have been in a position to make a run at the state crown had it not been for some clever coaching from Pettet in the opener. His coaching techniques allowed him to save his ace, Zumbro (9-4) , for the second round.
As traditional baseball philosophy dictates, Pettet started Zumbro on the hill in the tournament opener, but after that it was a case of shuffle 'em in, shuffle 'em out.
As RV and Payson battled through five innings of scoreless play, Pettet used senior Hunter Walden -- normally a first baseman -- in relief whenever the occasion presented itself.
The move was meant to save as many innings as possible for Zumbro so he might be available the following day.
High school rules allow pitchers to hurl 12 innings in two days.
Over the course of the seven-inning encounter, Zumbro pitched four frames and Walden three.
Both were sharp. Zumbro gave up one hit and struck out seven; Walden gave up two hits and also struck out seven. Zumbro didn't walk a batter; Walden walked only one.
Having pitched only four frames, Zumbro was eligible to pitch eight against Safford if needed.
Hitting attack comes alive
Pettet's musical chairs antics on the mound would have been pointless had it not been for a four-run Longhorn uprising in sixth inning that got the offense untracked.
Cade Bradley opened the inning with a walk and later advanced on a passed ball. Bradley then beat out a high chopper between short and third to give the Horns runners at the corners and no outs. A deep sacrifice fly to center by Jeremy Reynolds broke the scoreless deadlock. Later, Josh McRae doubled down the left field line and Scotty Garduno singled to add fuel to the Horn fire.
In the top of the seventh, Longhorn bats continued to heat up. Crucial hits from Nick Brunson, Reynolds and McRae, coupled around an RV error, tacked on four insurance runs.
Against Safford, Garduno was an offensive force, swatting a double and triple in three appearances. Walden also had two hits as did McRae.
Over the course of the two games, Brunson has paced Payson, going 3-for-4 at the plate with one RBI and two doubles.
Garduno is 4-for-7 and McRae 4-for-8.
On a roll
Saturday's appearance in the Big Show's final four will be the second in the past three seasons for the Longhorns. In 1997, Payson advanced to the semifinals only to lose to eventual state champion, Globe, 4-1.
In light of being shunned by latest coaches poll April 27, the Horns reveled in the upset victory over RV.
Much-heralded River Valley entered the tournament as the state third-ranked West Division champion but was outplayed by the Longhorns. Payson was in the tournament as the Central's third seed after losing a coin flip to Globe last week.
Central regular season play ended in a three-way tie involving Fountain Hills, Globe and Payson.
Prior to the coin flip, the Horns and Tigers survived a mini-playoff to advance to the state tournament.