A sense of achievement was mixed with the disappointment as the defeated and sweat-soaked Lady Longhorn softball players strolled off Phoenix Rose Mofford diamond Friday afternoon.
The Lady Horns suffered through a 5-3 state tournament opening round loss to the Safford Bulldogs.
Senior Sidney Swartwood, a four-year softball letter-winner, summed up the atmosphere surrounding the players: "Since I've been here (at PHS) no (softball) team has made state, so this is a big accomplishment," she said, "but we all would have liked to have gone further (in the tournament)."
Fellow senior Alison Crabtree echoed her teammate's sentiments. "We had a good season and it was fun, but we wanted more."
Prior to Friday, the last Lady Longhorn team to advance to the state showdown was the 1996 squad that finished fourth in the East Region. That team was eliminated in the state first round by Bradshaw Mountain.
Before the four-year state drought -- and since the team's founding in 1987 -- the Longhorns were a fixture in the tournament under the tutelage of former coach Richard Alvarez.
The 2000 edition of the Lady Horns, coached by Will Dunman in his first year at the helm of a varsity program -- set a preseason goal of earning a seed into the state championship and returning Payson to its glory years.
By compiling 8-4 regional credentials, the Lady Horns achieved their ambitions and were rewarded with a third-seed into state behind East runnerup Show Low and champion Snowflake.
Paired against South two-seeded Safford, the Horns entered the fray as the underdog, but were determined they had the firepower and pitching to battle the Dogs on even terms.
In the week leading up to the game, Dunman expressed optimism. "We've had really good practices ... I believe the girls are excited about this. It's a great opportunity."
But a victory was not in the playoff cards for the Lady Horns who could never muster the offense to overtake Safford's early two-run cushion.
The loss, as heartbreaking as it was for Payson faithful, didn't diminish the resolve of assistant coach Cheri Brennen.
Brennen said she and the other coaches returned to Payson firmly believing the Horns' appearance in the big show was a forecast of things to come rather than an aberration.
With the season at an end, many of the local players will be turning their attention to summer league play and skills-improvement camps.
For the seniors, their prep careers are at an end. However, a handful of accolades await some when the All-East team is made public early next week. Also, some will be chosen to participate in the annual North vs. South Arizona Coaches Association game this summer.
Those who remain
Following opening and quarterfinal rounds in Phoenix, only four teams remain in the hunt for the state championship. None of the contenders represent the East region.
In semifinal clashes to be played Friday at the Rose Mofford fields, Safford is pitted again Eloy Santa Cruz. Also, defending state champion Tucson Sahuarita takes on Fountain Hills. Game time for both is 7 p.m.