One of the largest prep volleyball tournaments in Arizona will heat up the courts in both the Wilson dome and the Payson High School gymnasium this weekend.
Eighteen teams from around the state, including all of the East Division schools, defending tournament champion Ganado of the North and highly regarded Class 4A Cactus Shadows, will battle in the Third Annual Payson Invitational Tournament.
The tournament format will duplicate almost exactly what was conducted last year. The teams were placed into three pools of six squads each and began round-robin play at 9 a.m. today (Friday).
Action will continue throughout the day on two courts in the dome and one court in the old gymnasium.
On Saturday, the schools that compile the best three records in each of the pools will be seeded into a double elimination championship bracket that will tip off play at 8 a.m. The bottom three teams in each of the pools will be seeded into a consolation, double-elimination tournament.
Lady Longhorn volleyball coach Sue Weems, who is doubling as tournament director, predicts that if the tournament stays on schedule the championship game will be contested at 7 p.m., Saturday in the dome.
Admission is $3 per session or $5 for a tournament pass. PHS students receive a $1 discount.
Last year's tournament finale was a barn-burner that had fans on the edge of their seats watching Ganado rally to slip past runner-up Snowflake.
This year, Ganado is adjusting to a new head coach, but Weems expects the defending champions to be as tough as ever. She also predicts the Hornets could receive a stiff challenge from Snowflake, Cactus Shadows and Payson.
"We expect to be in the championship game," she said.
Hosting a tournament the size of the invitational, the coach said, is a monumental task that requires substantial funding, which the team received from the Mogollon Sporting Association.
"We couldn't put this on without the support of the sporting association and our other sponsors around town. We are really thankful for their help," Weems said.
The Lady Horns prepped for the invitational shootout Sept. 2 in Globe against the South Division Tigers.
Last year, when both teams were members of the now-defunct Central Division, the game's outcome would have had an impact on state seeding. This year, however, it represented only a non-divisional tune up.
The varsity Lady Horns, which dropped its season-opening match 2-0 to Chino Valley on Aug. 31, rebounded into winning form, caging the Tigers in two games, 15-12 and 15-10.
In the first triumph, Weems said, "We were sluggish but got better as the game went on."
In the second encounter, the Lady Horns found themselves trailing 8-0 before Brianna Marshall served two aces to put Payson on the scoreboard.
Globe rebounded to raise the count to 10-2, but senior Nike Scholl served eight straight points for the Lady Horns to deadknot the count at 10-10.
Cassie Fulp, a four-year varsity player, served four more points to put Payson in position to close out the game. The Tigers produced one more point before Marshall served an ace to cap the victory.
In addition to the offensive contributions of Marshall, Fulp and Scholl, Weems cited the play of Eve Ketchem and Brandi Waugh. Ketchem, the coach said, is playing a new position --outside hitter -- and excelled with her passing.
Waugh, only a sophomore, came off the bench in the first game to put a damper on the Tiger offense with several spirited defensive plays.
In junior varsity action against Globe, the Payson crew returned to the Rim country with a pair of wins behind the stellar play of Hannah Ludwig and Brook McRae.
As an outside hitter, Ludwig "did a real good job," Weems said.
McRae, the coach said, "is really stepping up, playing well."
The Longhorn freshmen lost a 2-1 decision to the Tigers after winning the first game 15-0.
In the final two encounters, the Rim plebes found themselves on the losing end of 15-10 and 15-11 scores.
Despite the losses, Weems said, the freshman team excelled in the serving aspects of the game and showed a great deal of potential.
Following this weekend's tournament, all three Payson teams will return to action Sept. 14 in Show Low. Game times are 4:30 (frosh), 5:45 (jayvee) and 7 p.m. (varsity) in the Show Low High School gymnasium.