Payson High School senior Sidney Swartwood harbors few doubts the 2000 edition of the Lady Longhorn softball team is going to be a good one.
"This will be the best team we've had in four years," she predicts.
Teammate Niki Scholl, also a senior, agrees, "We'll be awesome -- especially the defense -- the best around."
Set to lead the determined group of Lady Longhorns into diamond warfare is first-year head coach Will Dunman.
Although he's a rookie, Dunman brings with him a wealth of experience in jayvee and freshman competition. He coached both levels in Flagstaff several years ago, and last season was a combination jayvee/frosh coach at Payson High.
After taking over the head coaching reins last spring from retiring Greg Larkins, Dunman immediately strung together an extensive off-season program that had the players entered in the Grand Canyon State Games and participating in an exhaustive training camp.
In the GC games, the team finished with a 3-1 record.
At the Arizona State University summer camp held in Flagstaff, the players were tutored by Sun Devil head coach Linda Wells.
One of the advantages of the off-season experiences, Dunman says, was they served to whet the appetite of the players. "The girls were really anxious to get started, they want to get out and play right away," he said.
Early this week, after observing the players toil through preseason training, the coach said he was ready to declare outstanding attitudes as a real strength of his first varsity team.
"There's never been any complaints from them; they're an outstanding group of girls who will work hard," Dunman said.
In addition to focusing on attitudes and fundamentals in early workouts, the team members have done some goal setting and decided their aspirations are to win the East region championship and advance to the state tournament.
Once entered in the big show, the girls want to play as deep as possible into the tournament and hopefully win the school's first state softball championship.
But a huge obstacle awaiting them in regional play is the perennially tough Snowflake Lobos.
"They're the team to beat," Scholl said.
Teammate Alison Crabtree points to the Show Low Cougars as a topnotch team that could make a run at the region and state titles.
Because the coach is new to the varsity level, he's not well-versed in the talent level of the competition, but he agrees with his veteran players that Snowflake and Show Low will be the regional tough guys.
The Horns turned up for rigors of East region play Feb. 24 in Winslow against the homestanding Lady Bulldogs.
In the clash -- a preseason controlled scrimmage -- no score was kept, but the players say they mentally kept tabulations and Payson came out on top 2-1.
After assessing the girls' performances in the scrimmage, Dunman said he was pleased with overall execution. "They did a lot of the little things well -- like double play foot-work -- that's the fundamentals we work on."
To succeed in the rugged East region -- which is regarded as the toughest in the 3A conference -- the Lady Horns will need topnotch pitching.
That burden will fall on the shoulders of Swartwood, junior Tiffany Lubken and possibly freshman Rachel Ray.
Swartwood and Lubken boast varsity experience, but should the coach have to call upon Ray, he'll be going with a greenhorn who has only middle-school mound experience.
Decent hurlers need effective battery mates and the Horn hurlers will have highly capable backstops in Sage Walden and Jennifer McRae. Both catchers are returning letter winners well versed in handling pitchers.
The starting infield could include Eve Ketchem at first base, Crabtree at second, Jamie Peace at shortstop, and at the hot corner -- Brittany Boyes.
Penciled in as outfielders are Scholl (left), Raeanne Burba (center) and either Brandyce Engler or Shawna Stahl in right.
Also on the varsity roster is Tanya Heglie, but she's not currently working out with the team while recovering from knee surgery.
Her return, Dunman said, would lend much- needed depth to the roster.
In addition to having 13 players on varsity, the jayvee crew, under the tutelage of Cheri Brennen, has another 13 athletes.
The freshmen team, coached by Katie Tenney, carries 12 first-year players and will compete in a 10-game schedule.