If the Longhorn baseball team boasted a distinct advantage entering the opening round of the state tournament, it was the crunch-time experience earned on the rocky road to the 1999 championship.
With a solid nucleus of seven seniors, the Horns were accustomed to the pressures of playing at prep baseball's highest level surrounded by the impressive trappings of Peoria Sports Complex's state-of-the-art professional facilities.
But just like the best laid plans, the Horns competed Friday in the opening round as if they were gawking novices at the big show.
"It was like we had never been (to the state tournament)," coach Teddy Pettet said, following an opening round 12-2 loss to the Safford Bulldogs. "Most of the time we just gave them their runs."
By committing seven costly errors and almost as many base-running miscues, the Horns were their own worst enemy.
The defeat wraps up the 2000 campaign for the Longhorns, who compiled a 15-12 record and entered the tournament as a fourth seed against one-seeded Safford.
Payson actually finished 3A East division play tied for third with the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets. Both teams were 8-4.
A coin toss was held May 1 to decide which of the teams would advance as the three seed and which would go as four. Payson lost the toss, sending the higher seed to Blue Ridge.
As the East's third finisher, the Yellow Jackets lost 11-0 in the opening round to South-two Globe. BR's loss was no surprise since the Tigers were the state's top-ranked team most of the season. Globe fell to the state two spot being upset in the South title game by Safford.
Following a full slate of opening round tournament games Friday and quarterfinals Saturday, the original 16-team field has been reduced to four.
At 3:30 p.m. Friday in the Peoria Sports Complex Mariner's #5 field, Globe will take on East champion Snowflake. Also at 3:30 p.m., Safford plays Fountain Hills on Mariner's field #6.
With two teams -- Safford and Globe -- in the final four, the South region can stake claim to being the most competitive in the 3A conference.
The survivors of the semifinal clashes meet at 7 p.m. May 13 in the main stadium for the right to be called "state champions."
At first glance
The Horns opened the first round game, contested on the Mariner's Field #3 in impressive fashion, jumping out to a 2-0 first-inning lead.
Senior Nick Brunson led off with a walk and advanced to third on two wild pitches.
Freshman Waylon Pettet then drew a bases-on-balls but only pitches later was picked off first and caught in a run down. On the play, Brunson scored from third. The throw to the plate to try to catch Brunson allowed Pettet to retreat to first safely.
Pettet eventually advanced to second on Cade Bradley's sacrifice and scored on Bryan Zumbro's liner down the right field line.
Leading 2-0, Horn hopes for a second successive state crown seemed to be intact. But as quickly as the team had lit up the scoreboard, the wheels came off the Longhorn wagon. After tying the game 2-2, Safford upped the count to 7-2 in the third. In the fatal frame, Zumbro, the Horns' starting hurler and pitching hero of last season's state tournament run, was relieved by junior Tyler Pettet.
But even a pitching change couldn't turn the tide of the Bulldog onslaught.
The Longhorn baseball program loses the services of seven team members who will graduate next week with the PHS Class of 2000. They include Justin Kaufmann, Joe Sanchez, Joey Klein, Casey Parker, Cade Bradley, Brunson and Zumbro.
The group represents a good chunk of Longhorn baseball for the past two seasons.
The only aspect of their prep careers remaining is the anticipation of next week's naming of the All-East team. Some also will be contenders for the Arizona Coaches Association All-Star game this summer.
That celestial squad will be chosen May 21 in a voting of high school coaches.
The first steps to replacing the graduating seniors begins this summer when coach Pettet fields a team in the Valley-based Arizona Prep League. The six-team summer league features Saturday games in Payson and, weekdays, evening contests in the Phoenix-metropolitan area.
High school-aged youngsters interested in participating should call Pettet at 474-2233.