By virtue of an 11-7 eight-inning upset of the homestanding Show Low Cougars Friday afternoon, the Longhorn baseball team accomplished its season-long goal of advancing to the Class 3A state tournament.
The victory over the highlytouted cats -- who entered the season finale as the East region league leaders with a 9-2 record --lifts Payson's credentials to 8-4 (15-11 overall).
The team now advances to state as a fourth seed and will play south number-one seed Safford at 1 p.m. May 5 on Mariner's Field #3 at Peoria Sports Complex.
With the win over Show Low, the Horns actually finished tied with Blue Ridge (also 8-4) for third in the final standings. A coin flip between BR and Payson was held Monday morning in the office of PHS Athletic Director Barry Smith.
Payson lost the flip and Blue Ridge opted to take the East's third seed to state and will play South two (Globe) in the opening round of the state showdown.
A measure of revenge
The hard-fought win over Show Low turned state tournament-sweet for the Longhorn players who were reeling from the disappointment of a 21-11 loss to the Cougars April 4 on PHS diamond.
Entering Friday's fray, the cats were the overwhelming favorites to rack up a second successive victory over the defending state champion Horns.
A loss to Show Low would have put the Horns' chances of advancing to state on the ropes in that a playoff between three teams possibly tied for third and fourth place would have been called for.
However, Payson's goal to play next week in the 3A tournament opener at Peoria Sports Complex was realized in the top of the eighth when the team rallied for four runs to break a 7-7 deadlock.
In the bottom of the frame, junior Tyler Pettet was called upon to relieve starter Bryan Zumbro who had pitched seven full innings giving up 11 hits, striking out nine and walking five.
As the drama of the final one-half inning unfolded, the first batter to face Pettet gave the Jackets life when he got aboard on an infield error.
The runner, however, was soon erased on a 5-4-3 double play.
Placing his pitches with pin-point precision, Pettet ended the game by getting the final hitter on a routine pop-up to shortstop Scotty Garduno.
Pettet's late pitching heroics were made possible by the timely hitting of Garduno who --in the top of the seventh inning -- tied up the game, 7-7, to send it into the extra inning.
Garduno's dramatic two-out, booming home run sailed over the green monster in Show Low park.
Had it not been for Garduno's crucial yard-shot, Show Low would have emerged victorious 7-6 and as the East region champions.
However, with the loss, Show Low must now share the East title with rival Snowflake.
For the day, Garduno led all Longhorn hitters, finishing three for four at the plate.
Also shining for the Longhorns were a pair of senior veterans who played prominent roles in last spring's run to the state crown.
Cade Bradley swatted two doubles and had three RBIs in five trips to the plate.
Nick Brunson was 2-for-5 with two RBIs.
Zumbro contributed a two-run homer in the eighth inning, his eighth circuit shot of the campaign.
A game saver on D
Defensively the Horns had their ups and downs, but did manage to pull off a nifty double play in the bottom of the seventh that helped send the game into extra innings.
With the winning run on at first and no outs, Show Low coach David Nicholas called for a sacrifice bunt.
Fielded nicely by Payson, the batter was thrown out at first.
However, the lead Cougar runner -- seeing third had been vacated by a defender trying to field the bunt -- set sail for the hot corner.
Second baseman Cade Bradley, covering first on the bunt, saw the runner turning the corner at second and yelled for younger brother Ky, the third baseman, to retreat to his base.
Coach Teddy Pettet explains, "Cade threw to Ky who was running back (to third base) ... Ky
caught it more like a football pass and put his glove down, which the (Show Low) runner slid into."
Both Ky Bradley and the SL were sent tumbling by collision but Bradley managed to hold on to the throw and preserve the double play.
Coach Pettet labeled the defensive gem a game saver. Had the runner successfully advanced to third with only one out, he would have been in ideal scoring position.
"The game could have ended right there," he said.