With a 2-0 East region record (7-3 overall), the Lady Longhorn softball express is steaming toward what could be a berth in the season-ending state tournament.
A ticket to the big dance which would be the team's first in the past four seasons is a team goal, second-year coach Will Dunman said.
Regional victories over Alchesay (14-0) and Round Valley (16-4) lifted the Lady Horns out to a commendable start, but the squad's true mettle will be severely tested Saturday when it hosts East rival Round Valley. Game time is 1 p.m. on PHS diamond.
Dunman predicts the road to state travels through the White Mountain communities of Round Valley, Show Low and Snowflake.
"Those will be the teams we have to beat out," Dunman said.
The Lady Horns had the opportunity to preview Snowflake at the Pepsi-Albertson's Softball Classic contested last weekend in Kingman.
"We didn't play them in the tournament, but we saw them and they looked pretty good," Dunman said.
During the Lady Horns two-day tournament stay at the community's Centennial Park, the team compiled a 3-3 record whipping River Valley 4-2, Las Vegas High 6-2 and Winslow 8-1. The Lady Horns lost to Glendale Ironwood 10-2, Las Vegas Foothills 9-5 and Lake Havasu 3-0.
Payson opened tournament action Friday afternoon with the eight-run loss to Ironwood.
All games that afternoon, Dunman said, were played under downpours that drenched fields and made playing conditions sloppy.
In the loss, sophomore fireballer Rachel Ray received the starting nod from Dunman and hurled two full innings before fireman's help arrived in the form of Tiffany Lubken.
Offensively, the Horns scored twice in the first inning, but never threatened thereafter.
Never ones to shed tears over spilled Gatorade, the team returned to the field later that afternoon and played its way to the win over Class 3A West division member River Valley. In the triumph, freshman Brenna Zumbro picked up her first varsity pitching victory.
Hitting stars for Payson included Brandi Waugh (home run), LeeAnn Owens (triple) and Brooke McRae (double).
"We hit the ball really well," Dunman said.
The coach also cited the efforts of the Lady Horn defense for committing just two errors over the course of five full innings.
The Lady Horns wrapped up the day by riding Ray's pitching to the four-run victory over Las Vegas High.
The Nevada school, Dunman said, "was a strong team but we played well."
Saturday morning, the Lady Horns opened the second round of the tournament with the victory over Winslow. The Bulldogs, who call the 3A North Division home, could never solve the offerings of Lubken. The strong armed senior picked up the win with four innings of stellar hurling. Zumbro came on in the fifth to mop up.
Waugh paced the Lady Horns offense with a single and double in four plate appearances.
By pounding out 10 hits, Payson batters turned in their best offensive display of the tournament.
With a 3-1 record, the Lady Horns appeared well on their way to a berth in the tournament finals. But, much to the chagrin of Horn faithful, the wheels came off the Longhorn victory wagon in the final two games of tournament. The once-surging Payson crew suddenly lost their momentum in back-to-back losses to Las Vegas Foothills and Lake Havasu.
But, the three-run loss to Havasu, Dunman said, "was the best game we played in the tournament."
Playing error-free ball, the Lady Horns stayed close thanks to Ray's hurling efforts through five innings.
"She was outstanding," Dunman said.
In the loss to Foothills, Zumbro hurled the first four innings before giving way to relief help from Ray. The team received strong offensive contributions from Staci Scholl, Raeann Burba, Waugh and Zumbro.
School was two-for-three at the plate, Burba was two-for-four, Waugh had a double and Zumbro swatted two singles.
The presence of the two freshmen Zumbro and Scholl on the varsity team has created a mild dilemma for the coaching staff.
In coming weeks, Dunman must decide whether to keep the two on the varsity or allow them to hone their young skills on the freshman and jayvee teams. If the two can consistently contribute on the upper level, he said, they would remain with the varsity.