Horns Host Cats In Crucial East Showdown

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Hang around high school sports long enough and sooner or later you'll hear a coach utter the well-worn rallying cry of, "That's why we play the game."

The coach is most often referring to that magical season moment when athletes have the opportunity to test what legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once called, "The will to excel and the will to win."

Just such a moment will highlight the Rim country sports scene at 4 p.m. today (Tuesday) on the Payson High School baseball diamond.

In a pivotal clash of a pair of undefeated East region teams, the state third-ranked Payson Longhorns (15-4-1) will play host to the red-hot Show Low Cougars.

Since both teams boast 3-0 East records, the lead in the region standings will be at stake.

Simply said, today's winner will have the inside track at the East championship and a highly advantageous top seed into the state tournament when it begins May 10.

What makes the crucial showdown even more exciting will be the fact Cougar coach David Nikolaus will most likely call upon his highly touted pitching ace Doug Mathis to handle the hurling chores.

In compiling a 6-0 record this season, Mathis has built a reputation as a strike-out artist who could succeed on the 5A level.

Last season, Mathis hurled the Cougars to a pair of wins over the Longhorns.

His sterling reputation which includes two no-hitters this year hasn't daunted Longhorn senior pitcher/ infielder Ky Bradley's confidence.

Last week, Bradley said he's betting the Longhorns can play on even terms with Show Low, even with Mathis on the hill.

Sporting an impressive .489 batting average, Bradley will lead a Payson offense that might be the best set of hitters since Bryan Zumbro and Hunter Walden paced the Longhorns to the 1999 state championship.

One of the biggest contributors in the Horn offense this season has been senior Sean Pickle. Known more for his prowess as a nose guard on the PHS football team, Pickle has molded himself into one of the East region's most accomplished hitters.

Boasting a whopping .525 average, Pickle is a threat any time he steps to the plate.

"He has exceeded our greatest expectations," coach Teddy Pettet said.

Another huge contributor to the Horn cause has been Chad McRae.

With a .412 batting average and good power, he brings to the lineup another long ball threat that Mathis and other East hurlers will have to deal with.

Probably the best indication of the power in the Horn lineup lies in the No. 9 hitter.

On most teams that spot would go to a pitcher or a weak hitter. But for Payson, the nine-hole is manned by Darrin Grover, who has compiled a commendable .350 average.

The "D"

In today's showdown and throughout the remainder of the year, the Longhorn offense will undoubtedly play a crucial role in the team's pursuit of a second state title.

But, it also could be the defense that often proves to be the difference between a win and a loss.

One of the Horns most impressive defensive efforts this season has been turned in by the outfield of Levi Armstrong (left), Waylon Pettet (center) and Pickle (right) "probably the best outfield in the 3A conference," the coach said.

The outfield, he said, might even be better than the combination of Nick Brunson, Brian Cork and Jeremy Reynolds the outfield that helped lead the Horns to the 1999 crown.

"I think this one is faster," Pettet said.

While the defense has drawn its share of plaudits, the infield, led by first baseman Rob Ochoa, has also turned in several sterling defensive efforts.

With a .978 fielding average, Ochoa is rock solid at first.

Around the horn, Grover will get today's start at second and junior Nate Perna at shortstop.

Pettet has penciled in Bradley to open at third.

Switch-hitting Ashton Shewey will man the catching position.

Today's pitching start goes to McRae who'll take to the hill a 2-1 record and a 3.56 ERA.

His most impressive outing this season was a complete-game victory over Class 4A Flagstaff Sinagua.

Pettet says he's confident McRae has the ability to tangle with the powerful Cougars, but should he falter, the coach can call upon several talented relievers including Jon Beeson, Jeremy Heairet or Bradley.

Following today's game, baseball life in the East region doesn't get any easier for the Horns. On Friday, Payson plays host to longtime rival Snowflake at 4 p.m. on PHS diamond.

Next up for Payson will be a non-region clash April 13 against Holbrook on PHS field. Game time is 1 p.m. The Horns return to East action April 16 against Round Valley in Eager.

Because Alchesay Whiteriver canceled its baseball program this season, the East now has only five teams.

An April 30 game against Alchesay in Payson will not be played.

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