A Lady Longhorn team that is off to the best start in PHS softball history (17-4-1 overall and 4-0 in the East) will set in motion today (Tuesday) an assault that could nail down the squad's first-ever East region championship.
The PHS race to the finish begins at 4 p.m. in the White Mountains where the Lady Horns take on longtime nemesis and East region adversary Show Low.
The blitz through the East continues April 17 at Snowflake High School. There, the Lady Longhorns will try to chalk up their second win of the season over the Lobos. Game time also is at 4 p.m.
Since the inception of the PHS softball program 17 years ago, the Cougars and the Lobos have traditionally held the upper paw over the Lady Horns.
That dominance appears to be at an end. Hard-charging Payson enters the two skirmishes as possibly the superior team. The Lady Horns have chalked up a regular-season region victory over Snowflake. Couple that win with a Buckeye tournament triumph over the Cougars and it's easy to understand why the Lady Horns' spirits are high.
"We know it's a big week, but we have a lot of confidence," coach Will Dunman said. "We are going over there (Show Low and Snowflake) to get two (wins)."
The fate of the Lady Horns in both games could rest on the shoulders of junior hurler Brenna Zumbro who admits she's fired up for the Cougars.
"They've always been our big rivals. It's a game we look forward to," she said.
Zumbro will take the mound at Show Low High School, boasting a 12-2-1 record (1.00 ERA) and armed with an assortment of pitches that all season has kept opposing hitters off balance. Her probable pitching opponent, Bobbie Joe Merrill, dominated the Lady Horns in two Cougar victories last season. Payson finally got to Merrill in the team's earlier season tournament victory over Show Low.
That win, Dunman said, is solid proof the Lady Horns now sport the firepower to base hit the Cougar pitching ace.
In a trio of Lady Horn victories last week, Zumbro was credited with two of the wins.
After Sherra Johnson (1-0) pitched Payson to a 22-0 shellacking of Alchesay April 8, Zumbro started on the hill April 11 against the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets. In giving up only one hit and striking out 15, Zumbro was credited with the 8-0 victory.
A day later, in Holbrook, Zumbro was the pitcher of record in a 6-4 triumph over the Roadrunners. In the victory, Zumbro hurled three scoreless innings before giving way to McRae. After Holbrook rallied against McRae, Zumbro re-entered the game in the final frame to stifle the Roadrunner comeback.
Following the three victories, Dunman attributed the Lady Horns' spirited play to an aggressive style of play he calls "the short game."
He describes the philosophy as one in which Lady Horn hitters are asked to assertively put the ball in play with a variety of bunts and slap hits. Another scheme is for the hitters to swing while walking towards the pitch.
Once the ball is put in play, runners are encouraged to advance any way possible. The thinking behind the strategy is to force the other team into making errors.
"Good things happen when we play that way," Dunman said.
In the thumping of Alchesay, Rikki Ray paced the Lady Horns at the plate with four hits in five appearances. Doni Miotto contributed three hits.
Against Blue Ridge, sophomore infielder Tanya Davis went 2-for-3 with three RBIs. Jessica Coleman and Zumbro also contributed to Payson's nine-hit attack.
The victory over Holbrook was fueled by Miotto's two singles and a double off Zumbro's bat. Dunman also cited Hillary Armenta and Ray for their offensive contributions.