Horns Snatch Arizona Baseball Championship


Over the PA system, the sounds of Queens' rock-opera hit "We Are the Champions" filled the stadium. From the dugout, someone shouted, "The fat lady has sung." On the field, players dog-piled one another in unbridled enthusiasm. In the stands, fans hooted and hollered as if they were holding the winning lottery tickets.

That was the scene late Saturday afternoon in the Peoria Sports Complex after the Payson Longhorns upset highly favored Cave Creek Cactus Shadows 23-11 to win the Class 3A state baseball championship.

It was sheer Rim country bedlam and for good reason. In the 35-year history of the Payson High School baseball program, the long-awaited victory represented the Longhorns' first state championship.

Also, the stirring triumph was over a much-heralded Central Division rival that had frustrated the Horns all year by long winning both regular- season matchups on the 10-run rule. The victories also helped No. 1 ranked Cactus build a 27-0 record, go on a 35-game winning streak and lay claim to the Central Division championship.

Prior to Saturday's finale, Payson was thought to have about as much chance at winning the 1999 state title as pro baseball fans do of catching Buck Showalter crack a smile.

But the Horns were primed for the challenge and responded with a 21-hit attack that sent the Falcons' best pitcher, Casey Huston, scurrying to the showers in the fifth inning. No team this season has been able to do that to Huston.

CS coach Scott Cook called upon relievers Josh Phillips and Andrian Antico to quench the Payson firestorm, but neither could cool the Horns' hot bats.

In the top of the second inning, the Horns unleashed an 11-hit barrage that set a state championship game record. Also, the 12 runs scored in the inning were the second most in any title game.

The Horn stampede couldn't have come at a more opportune time. After Payson took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, Cactus rocked Longhorn starter Bryan Zumbro for eight runs in the bottom of the inning. During the seemingly endless outburst, CS sent a stream of 13 batters to the plate.

Payson fans were on edge. "Is this game going to be more of what they did to us earlier (this season)?" one barked from behind the Horns' third base dugout.

Cactus Shadows zealots were quick to leap onto the Falcon bandwagon, hurling barbs mostly at Zumbro and at some other Payson players.

Zumbro was unaffected by the verbal barrage. "Actually, it kind of amused me," he said in the dugout.

Finally, with two outs, a good defensive play by shortstop Scotty Garduno put an end to the CS blitzkrieg. Playing deep, Garduno ranged to his left, scooped up a sharp infield grounder and unleashed a throw across the diamond that nipped the CS batter hustling down the line.

Trailing by six against a team as heralded as CS, the Longhorns could have folded up the tents and called it a day.

But inside the dugout, the call was for unity.

"Let's get it back, we can do it," junior right fielder Nik Brunson shouted.

"We're OK, we're OK," third baseman Cade Bradley yelled.

Another player spouted, "Don't be denied."

PHS coach Ted Pettet joined in by urging his charges to focus on the task at hand and put the misfortunes of the past inning behind them.

The optimism paid huge dividends minutes later when the record-setting second inning helped Payson reclaim the lead, 14-8.

After his rocky start, Zumbro, who finished 12-4 on the year, settled down to hurl the entire six innings and earn the win.

While he didn't dominate, Zumbro was able to come up with just the right pitch, usually a curve ball down in the strike zone, to confuse Falcon hitters in crucial situations.

"I just wanted (Cactus to hit) ground balls," he said.

Zumbro's best effort might have occurred in the bottom of the sixth after Payson had built a 12-run lead, and the PA announcer sent Horn fans into a frenzy by proclaiming, "If Cactus Shadows does not score this inning, the game will end on the AIA 10-run rule and Payson will be declared state champions."

Reaching back for every bit of energy he could muster, Zumbro retired the first hitter on a routine fly ball to right field.

The next CS hitter ripped a sharp ground ball to the right side of the infield that first-baseman Hunter Walden gloved only after a desperation diving attempt. Zumbro covered first and the on-target underhand toss from Walden caught the runner by a half-step.

After watching Zumbro give up a single to the number-nine hitter in the CS order, Payson faithful rose to their feet and unleashed a thunderous roar of encouragement that easily drowned the Falcons' now-mild- mannered cheering section.

Inside the dugout, Pettet remained confident but admitted the crucial circumstances were testing the resolve of almost everyone.

On a 2-balls, 2-strike count, Zumbro ended the drama with a tailing away fastball that set the final Falcon hitter down on a swinging third strike.

During those final at-bats the adrenaline was obviously flowing in Zumbro. His fastball, veteran catcher Marc Bennett said, was reaching velocities not seen before.

"I guess I was kind of pumped," said Zumbro.

The stars on "O"
In addition to his defensive prowess at first base, Walden paced the Horns offensively with four hits in five plate appearances. Two of his hits were ringing doubles, one of which fell only inches short of clearing the left centerfield fence about 390 feet away.

Cade Bradley also swung a hot bat, contributing two doubles and four runs scored.

Zumbro went 3 for 3 with a pair of RBIs.

Showing good power and speed, Bennett ripped a sixth-inning triple that sent Falcon defenders scrambling.

Brunson had two singles, then gave way to pinch hitter Tyler Pettet, who also singled. Brunson returned as a pinch runner and eventually scored.

With the win, the Horns lifted their record to 23-9. Cactus fell to 27-1.

Another state win
The Longhorns advanced to the state champion game with a 14-0 win over the Winslow Bulldogs Friday afternoon in the Peoria Sports Complex.

The Horns chased Bulldog starter Vandell Sweet with six-run outbursts in the first and second innings. The game was ended after five innings on the 10-run rule. Zumbro started on the mound but was relieved by Walden as Pettet opted to save his ace for the championship game.

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