With 2-0 East region credentials (3-2 overall), the Lady Longhorn softball teams is off to the lightning-quick start first-year coach Will Dunman was pointing toward when preseason drills opened in early February.
The team's quick start in regional warfare was made possible by season-opening wins over East rivals Alchesay, 16-3, and Round Valley, 14-8.
The March 8 victory over the Elks was especially meaningful for Dunman's charges since the triumph came on the road.
The key to earning a top-four finish in the region and the resulting berth into the state tournament has long been to take care of business at home and hope for as many road victories or "breakthroughs" as possible.
Teams achieving those goals usually earn a seed into the state tournament.
With one home victory (Alchesay) and another on Highway 260 (RV), the Horn softball express is streaming toward the 3A state showdown.
Originally, the game against Round Valley was to be played in Payson. However, due to wet ground, cold weather and poor playing conditions in the Rim country, the contest was moved to Eagar.
With that game having been played at the Elks' homesite, the second meeting of the two teams -- originally to be contested April 8 in Eagar --will now be played at the Payson High School field.
After jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, the Lady Horns stumbled and found themselves trailing 8-3 only three innings later.
Those dire straits, Dunman said, would have many prep teams folding up their tents and scampering home.
But the Lady Horns responded to the adversity with a nine-run fifth inning that pushed them out to a 12-8 cushion they never relinquished. Scooping icing onto the victory cake, the Lady Horns tacked on two insurance runs in the top of the 7th and final frame.
The come-from-behind triumph is the stuff champions are made of, Dunman said. "What a great effort to not quit and come back like that."
Senior Sidney Swartwood, who drew the starting pitching nod, was credited with the victory after hurling 6 1/3 innings. Freshman Rachel Ray relieved and faced just two batters before retiring the side.
During her stint on the mound, Swartwood struck out one and walked three.
The key to her success, Dunman said, was "she got them to hit into a lot of ground balls and fly outs."
The pitching effort of Swartwood and Ray was backed by a Longhorn defense that committed just two errors.
"We played well defensively," Dunman said, citing the efforts of outfielders Raeann Burba and Nikki Scholl.
In addition to Swartwood's hurling heroics, she fueled the Horn offense, finishing three-for-four at the plate.
Brittany Boyes, Tiffany Lubken and Scholl were all two-for-four. Sage Walden, who only recently returned to the lineup after recovering from an ankle injury, had two hits in five trips to the plate.
In the offensive contributions of the players, Boyes, Scholl and Walden clubbed doubles, which is a significant improvement over last season when the team's anemic hitting attack revolved around infield ground balls that sometimes snuck through the defense.
The extra base hits, Dunman said, had another dimension to the team that will be tough to defend when East diamond wars begin to heat up in April.
The Lady Horns return to prep action today, Friday, against the visiting St. Johns Redskins. Game time is 3:30 p.m. on PHS field.
The nonregional clash will have no effect on the Lady Horns run for East honors but will serve as an invaluable tune-up for upcoming regional encounters, Dunman said.
The team jumps back into East action at 3:30 p.m. March 20 on PHS field against Blue Ridge.