Much to the relief of hardened Longhorn sports fans, the softball team's three-season state tournament drought comes tumbling down at 1 p.m. today at Rose Mofford Complex in Phoenix. On field #2, the Horns are set to take on the Safford Bulldogs in the opening round of the 3A conference tournament.
Payson advances to the big show as the East region's three-seed. As the South region's runnerup, Safford will be the favored team.
If the Horns can muster an upset of the Dogs, Payson will advance to a quarterfinal clash at 10 a.m. Saturday. Because the tournament is a single-elimination format, a loss in any round eliminates the team from further play.
The last time the Horns appeared in a state tournament playoff was 1986 when the then-coach Gary Ritter Longhorns entered the tournament as a four-seed from the East. After taking an early lead in the opener, the Lady Horns succumbed 11-7 to a Bradshaw Mountain rally.
The 2000 edition of the Lady Horns qualified for the tournament by compiling an 8-4 regional record which was good enough for third-place honors. The top four teams from each of the four geographical regions earn the privilege of participating in the state showdown.
Snowflake represents the East region as the one-seed. Show Low enters as a two and Holbrook advances as four.
PHS coach Will Dunman, in his first year at the helm of the varsity program, will be making his inaugural trip to state as will his entire roster of players.
The anticipation of competing in the big show, Dunman said, has the players primed for action.
"I believe the girls are really excited about this," he said. "We've had really good practices."
The heat is on
In addition to battling inexperience and a talented Safford team, the Lady Horns must cope with Phoenix heat that is projected to exceed 100 degrees by game time.
Dunman admits the searing desert temperatures will make for uncomfortable playing conditions, but doesn't think the heat will affect the outcome of the game.
Swartwood to start
After assessing his three pitchers' performances, the coach said he plans to start his pitching ace, senior Sidney Swartwood, on the hill. Tiffany Lubken and freshman Rikki Ray will be available for relief duty.
The Horns enter the tournament riding the offensive contributions of senior Nikki Scholl who, throughout most of the season, held down the no. three slot in the batting order.
"She's been our most stable, most consistent hitter," Dunman said.
Brandy Engler, Eve Ketchem, Raenn Burba and Alison Crabtree have also wielded potent bats on occasions.
The semifinals of the state tournament are slated to be played May 12 and the championship finale May 13. Those games also will be held at Rose Mofford Complex at 9833 N. 25th Avenue in Phoenix.