Stamp this week crunch time for Longhorn baseball as the team chases a top-four finish in the East region final standings and a berth into the state tournament.
With a 5-3 region record and a 10th-place state ranking in coach's polls, the Horns are not exactly the odds on favorites to defend the 3A state championship won last spring.
However, victories today (Tuesday) over Holbrook and Thursday against Snowflake, would propel Payson into the running for an advantageous seed into the state shoot-out and a solid shot at another Arizona title.
With only two regular season East contests remaining after this week (April 25 vs. Blue Ridge and April 28 vs. Show Low), losses to either Holbrook or Snowflake would put a damper on Horn ambitions of returning to the big show.
In earlier season meetings, the Horns whipped Holbrook 14-8 March 21, but lost 4-0 to the Lobos three days later.
In the loss to the Lobos, the normally proficient Longhorn offense was held but to two base hits.
PHS coach Teddy Pettet attributed the defeat to a lack of aggressiveness at the plate.
"We just stood there (at the plate) looking ... no one was really swinging the bat."
In this week's crucial showdowns, Tyler Pettet -- the coach's son -- is expected to get the starting nod against Holbrook.
Bryan Zumbro, the team's pitching ace last season, is ticketed to challenge the Lobos.
The senior right-hander is recovering from an injured shoulder that limited his pitching effectiveness the past two weeks. Sunday, he said the shoulder was feeling good and that he was ready to resume his pitching chores.
His recovery is good news for Horn faithful who fondly remember him methodically hurling all four state championship wins last spring at Peoria Sports Complex.
At the onset of the season, coach Pettet predicted that with Zumbro on the hill, his team would be a threat to win any conference game.
Tyler Pettet, a junior, takes on the Roadrunners sporting an air of confidence, having stymied the Round Valley Elks in a 10-2 victory April 8.
Taking over for the then-injured Zumbro, Pettet gave up five hits, walked one and struck out five in a full seven innings.
Three days later at Whiteriver in a 19-9 thumping of Alchesay, Pettet came on in relief of starter Kacy Parker and shut out the Falcons over the course of his 1 2/3 innings of fireman's duty.
In facing six batters, he allowed just one harmless single. He also hurled with the same pinpoint control he owned against RV, issuing just one bases on balls.
Although Parker struggled giving up eight earned runs, he was credited with the victory after going 4 1/3 innings. During his stint, he allowed eight hits, walked five and struck out four. Tyler Pettet picked up the save.
In support of Payson pitching, the Horn offense was red-hot pounding out a whopping 20 base hits.
Cade Bradley, a vital cog in the Horns run to the crown last season who has been sidelined most of the campaign with a broken ankle, returned to the line-up with a vengeance.
Finishing a perfect 3-for-3 at the plate, Bradley was only a home run shy of hitting for the circuit.
In swatting a single, double and triple, he scored four runs and had two RBIs. If the senior infielder can continue that staggering pace, the Horns "O" has another tool in place to make a run at a second state title.
Cade's young brother, Ky, also swung a solid bat in Whiteriver, finishing with two doubles and a home run in five appearances.
Senior outfielder Justin Kaufmann, known more for his football exploits than baseball, turned in a rock-solid performance at the plate swatting a home run and single in three appearances.
Other offensive contributors included Nick Brunson (3-for-6), Waylon Pettet (1-for-2) and Zumbro (2-for-5).
On the base paths, the Horns were a perfect 4-for-4 in theft attempts. Zumbro pilfered two in a pair of tries.
Defensively, the Horns were not quite what coach Pettet had hoped for, committing five miscues -- three of them in the Alchesay half of the fifth inning. The errors helped fuel a Falcon four-run uprising that closed the Horn lead to 12-9.
The Longhorns, however, countered with a seven-run sixth inning that ended the game on the 10-run rule.
Today's game against Holbrook will pitch off at 4 p.m. on PHS field. Thursday, the Horns travel to Snowflake for another 4 p.m. start.
With Cade Bradley now
back in the line-up, the only player who has yet to return to duty is senior pitcher Joey Klein.
A broken hand has kept him out of duty since early season. Klein said he is unsure of his return but hopes to be available by the time the state tournament rolls around in early May.