With an eye on defending the state championship won last spring, the Longhorn baseball team is primed to jump cleats-first into all-important East region play.
The Horns -- off to a 1-0 East start by virtue of a 24-3 win over Alchesay Feb. 29 --are slated to clash with Holbrook (March 21), Snowflake (March 24) and Blue Ridge.
The Holbrook and Blue Ridge games will be played on PHS field; Payson travels to Snowflake.
While the games can't be labeled "crucial" this early in the season, the contests could go a long way in determining whether the young Horns have the tools needed to stay in the chase for the East title. A top two finish would earn the team an advantageous seed into the state championships when the tournament begins May 5.
PHS coach Teddy Pettet -- the state's coach of the year last season -- says a trio of wins next week would be just what the doctor ordered for his state fifth-ranked team that has struggled out to a 5-5-1 mark.
Anything less than two wins would drop the Horns into a regional hole they'd be forced to dig out of later down the line when each pitch can determine state tournament fate.
When the going turns rugged in the upcoming title chase, the Longhorns can take solace in the fact they can call upon one of the best right-handed pitchers in the 3A conference.
Senior Bryan Zumbro single-handily pitched the Longhorns to the 1999 state championship, hurling all six of the tournament wins including the gold-medal triumph over Cactus Shadows.
His mound performances over the course of the two weekends impressed college scouts enough to have them now knocking at the door.
He finished the 1999 campaign with a sterling 12-4 record and was eventually named to all-region and all-state teams.
This year -- with an 0-2 record -- he's been stymied in his quest for victories, but his pitching prowess remains top of the line.
Whether it's a fastball, curveball or change-up, his offerings baffle opposing hitters as they did last season.
With an ERA of 1.66, he boasts one of the lowest in the conference.
Over the course of 12 2/3 innings, he's faced 56 batters while allowing just five hits, three earned runs and six bases on balls.
The tough luck Zumbro is experiencing nailing down "Ws" came to the forefront at last week's Miami Tournament
Against the homestanding Vandals in the finale, Zumbro -- in relief of Waylon Pettet -- did not allow a hit in four innings of mound duty. Facing 17 batters --one over the minimum 16 -- he struck out 11.
Because the game ended on the two-hour time-limit rule in a 4-4 tie, he was not credited with a win.
Zumbro says the lack of a pitching win hasn't frustrated him and he'll continue to pitch as usual allowing the Ws to fall where they may.
In addition to having Zumbro in the fold as his ace, Pettet can also call upon Ky Bradley, Kacy Parker, O.J. Siebert, Tyler Pettet or Joey Klein to pitch.
Among the crew, Parker -- who is 1-1 -- is the most experienced, having pitched 10 innings this season.
Tyler Pettet, the coach's son, is 1-1, as is the sophomore Bradley. Klein and Siebert are both 1-0.
Most often, pitching is the deciding factor in pennant races but crisp hitting can also help turn the tide.
After 11 games, the Horns' line-up has shown it has the bat power to produce runs with five starters hitting at least .400.
They include Waylon Pettet (.455), Cade Bradley (.438), Zumbro (.429), Ky Bradley (.421) and Scotty Garduno (.400).
The surprises in the group are Pettet -- a freshman -- and the sophomore Ky Bradley.
On the onset of the season, the two were raw, green prospects without an inning of varsity experience. Surprising even the coach, the two have rounded into topnotch hitters capable of filling the void created last spring when sluggers Hunter Walden, Brian Cork, Marc Bennett and others graduated.
If the Horns find themselves in need of a quick run, the power might be supplied by Zumbro who, as a sophomore, set the school home run record only to have it broken later that season by Walden.
Cade Bradley, a senior, also has the power to go round-trip, but any hitting he'll do will have to wait until an ankle fracture mends. The teenager incurred the injury last week in a basketball shoot around. Coach Pettet estimates Bradley will be out two to three more weeks.
Others in the lineup who have shown their hits can reach the fences are Ky Bradley and Justin Kaufmann. Both have hit a home run this season.
Defensively, the Horns have had their ups and downs, but part of that could be attributed to a lack of practice time due to wet fields, school being canceled for two days and cold, snowy weather conditions.
In a 13-8 win over Show Low, the Horns survived despite committing five errors. Against Superior, the Horn defense had only one miscue during a seven-inning 13-9 victory.
Without Cade Bradley in the line-up at third, the coach has had to shuffle players around trying to find the best spot to fit their playing abilities.
Most, Pettet said, have responded to the challenge by relying on fundamentals they learned on the lower levels.
The key to the infield defense is shortstop Scotty Garduno, a seasoned junior, who started last year and has the invaluable experience of toiling in the pressure of the state tournament.
When Garduno can make the tough plays ranging both right and left, the Payson defense is tough to penetrate.
In the outfield, senior Nick Brunson -- also a state tournament veteran -- is a stalwart in center.
Waylon Pettet has shown promise in left, but right field starting honors remain up for grabs.