The state tournament drought could be over.
With a 7-3 East region record and two regular season games remaining in the 2000 campaign, the Lady Longhorn softball team is poised to return to the Class 3A state showdown.
Once a regular on the state tournament scene under former coach Richard Alvarez, the Horns have been relegated to the spectator's bleachers the past four seasons. The last Payson team to advance to the big show was the 1996 squad coached by Gary Ritter. That group advanced as a fourth seed but was eliminated in the first round 11-7 by Bradshaw Mountain.
The only item yet to be determined this spring is which seed -- two through four -- the Lady Horns will tote to state. The squad had the opportunity to advance as the number one seed, but a stunning 8-2 loss to Snowflake April 20 ended those aspirations.
Entering the fray played on PHS diamond, the two teams were tied for the East regular season championship. With the win, Snowflake is now the front-runner to advance to state as the East crown bearer.
With road victories this week over Blue Ridge and Show Low, the Lady Horns could stake claim to a second-place seed. A pair of losses to BR and SL could drop the Horns to fourth. But, that scenario is highly unlikely since Payson practically owns the Yellow Jackets this season and by the weekend should have at least one victory to their credit.
In Payson March 20, the Horns hammered the Jackets 16-2 in a lopsided affair that was ended on the 10-run mercy.
Playing Show Low Friday however will be a much tougher endeavor for the Lady Horns.
In an April 10 clash between the two teams, the Cougars proved vastly superior to Payson, running away with a 10-0 triumph .
Horn coach Will Dunman, in his first year at the helm of the program, said he believes his team is looking forward to the challenge of a rematch against Show Low.
"The girls are a little up and down with their confidence, but I think they'll be ready," he said.
If Dunman opts to go with his pitching ace this week, senior Sidney Swartwood will take to the mound. Although she was the losing hurler against Snowflake, allowing nine hits, Dunman said she did a good job.
Crucial errors, including three in the top of the fourth inning, led to her downfall.
Trailing only 1-0 at the end of three frames, six Snowflake hits coupled with the Lady Horns mistakes led to eight Lobo runs. That inning, Dunman said, turned out to be the difference in the game.
The Horns also have a couple of strong pitchers waiting in the wings including freshman Rachel Ray and junior Tiffany Lubken.
In a 7-1 victory over Alchesay April 11, Ray was credited with the win.
Offensively, the Lady Horns boast a stable of pretty fair country hitters including Eve Ketchem, Brandy Engler, Raeann Burba and Nicki Scholl
In a 6-5 win over Holbrook, April 18, Ketchem was two for three at the plate, Engler swatted a triple and Burba played the roll of "slapper."
Dunman explains the slapper position as a left-handed batter who tries to punch the ball into the left side of the infield and then beat the throw to first.
Dunman said Burba --a natural right-hander --was good in her new position.
The Lady Horns tuned up for post-season play at the East region tournament held April 14 and 15 in Snowflake and Taylor.
Playing at Taylor City Park in opening round pool play, the Lady Horns compiled a 2-1 record, whipping Ganado 17-2, and Joseph City 6-5, but losing to Winslow 15-10.
With the twin pool victories, the team advanced to a single elimination tournament against second-place finishers in the other four pools.
Tournament play opened with the Horns beating Round Valley 12-5, but only one game later Payson was eliminated by Sedona 11-5.
In the victory over RV, Scholl fueled the Horn offense with two hits in three plate appearances.