Armed with the best overall record in the history of Payson High School baseball (21-6-1), the Longhorns are headed to the Arizona State championships.
Payson opens pursuit of the school's second state title at noon, May 3, in the Peoria Sports Complex against Chino Valley .
It was in that same Peoria professional spring training facility that the 1999 team played its way to the Longhorns' first state baseball crown by winning four consecutive tournament games.
The Horns (6-2 in the region) enter Friday's opening round as the East region's second seed and will be pitted against the West region third-seeded Cowboys.
Payson could have earned a tie for the regional championship and a highly advantageous first seed with a regular season-ending victory April 26 over homestanding Show Low. However, the Horns lost a 13-2 decision to the Cougars that dropped Payson into the runner-up slot. The Show Low win sent the White Mountain squad into the state tournament as the regional champions.
Snowflake will advance to state as the East's third seed and Blue Ridge enters clutching the fourth and final berth.
Because Alchesay Whiteriver dropped its baseball program this season, the East featured just five baseball teams. This means only cellar-dweller Round Valley will not go to state and Blue Ridge advances despite having won just two regional games.
During the course of the regional campaign, the Horns lost just two games both to Show Low.
In the first encounter, April 9 in Payson, the Horns gave the Cougars all the fight they could handle before dropping a 6-5 heartbreaker.
In the second clash, however, the Cougars pounded Payson, pitching for 13 hits on the way to a 13-2 triumph.
Uncharacteristically the Longhorn defense, which has been solid most of the year, committed four errors.
Also a Longhorn lineup that has been compared offensively to the 1999 championship team which featured a Murderer's Row of sluggers that managed only four hits off Show Low ace Doug Mathis (8-0).
If Alchesay had not dropped its baseball program, the Horns would have a tune-up game today (Tuesday) against the Falcons. However, that game has been cancelled and the Horns will have to rely on four consecutive days of practice to prepare for a run at the state title.
Veteran coach Teddy Pettet, who this season chalked up his 200th win at PHS, will use those sessions to steady his defense, select a starting hurler and fine-tune the offense.
Since the Horn lineup contains several competent pitchers, Pettet's challenge will be to select a starter who can pitch deep into the game.
In past big games, the coach has opted for Chad McRae to start on the hill. However, he absorbed the loss against Show Low and Pettet could be looking for help elsewhere.
Jon Beeson, Ky Bradley, Matt Woolwine and Jeremy Heairet are some of the hurlers who may get the starting nod.
Offensively, the Horns have been led all season by Bradley, McRae and Sean Pickle. If that trio heats up against Chino Valley, the Horns could be looking at a second round tournament game.
Defensively, Pettet has compared the outfield of Levi Armstrong (left), Waylon Pettet (center) and Pickle (right) to the accomplished trio that led Payson to the 1999 3A title.
In the infield, first baseman Rob Ochoa has been as solid as any in the East region.
Although the coach will wait until Friday to select his starting infielders, Darrin Grover (second), Nate Perna (shortstop) and Bradley (third) have received the nod most of the season.
Ashton Shewey, a rare switch hitter, has handled the catching chores. Unless Pettet changes his philosophy, Shewey will be behind the plate when the Horns take to the Peoria field.
If the Longhorns can emerge victorious against Camp Verde, they would advance to the second round Saturday at Peoria. Game time has not yet been determined.