Superb pitching, the home run power of Cody York and a gutsy, never-say-die attitude propelled the Payson Little League Major Division All-Stars to the District 1 championship and a berth in the state tournament.
The Rim country Little Leaguers nailed down the district title July 14 in Show Low with an 8-5 victory over St. Johns.
Payson entered the district championship clash as the Area 1 champion. St. Johns advanced to the title game as the Area 2 title holder. Since both teams had lost once in their respective area tournaments, only one game was played to determine the district gold medalist.
In the championship finale, the Payson stars found themselves trailing 3-0 at the end of four and a half innings of play. As was the Cardiac Kids' custom throughout the tournament, the team rallied from behind for the victory. In the top of the fifth, Payson scored six runs on four hits and two walks to assume the lead.
Tyler Savage got the starting pitching call from manager Bob Halenar and hurled two complete innings before giving way to Hunter Haynes. Pitching four innings, Savage was credited with the victory.
Following the game, Halenar cited pitching, good defense and improved offense for the tournament victory.
The coach also said the players' attitudes and strong work ethic played a role in helping the team accomplish a feat no other Rim country Little League team has been able to do.
"They are a bunch of great kids. They don't get down on themselves or their teammates," he said. "They played one game at a time and always managed to get the job done."
Probably the most amazing feat the team accomplished on the way to the crown was winning five consecutive games after a 16-12 loss to Continental in the Area 1 tournament's second round. Payson opened the showdown at Flagstaff Continental field with a 12-1 five-inning victory over Tuba City.
After losing to Continental, the Payson stars were relegated to the loser's bracket where they lingered just one loss from elimination.
Payson battled back in the lower bracket with a nail-biting 14-13 eight-inning victory over Flagstaff Coconino.
Sean Dougherty started on the hill, but was relieved by Dakota Marshall and Ridge Halenar.
Coconino's two grand slam home runs would have been enough offense to win most any game. But against the determined Rim crew, the barrage wasn't sufficient.
With the win over Coconino on the books, Payson advanced to an elimination game against Winslow. Scoring four runs in the fourth inning, Payson was able to edge Winslow 4-3. Savage hurled the entire six innings and was credited with the win.
The final game of the loser's bracket pitted Payson against Mount Elden. Fueled by home runs from York and Savage, as well as strong pitching from Haynes, Payson sent Mount Elden packing, 9-3.
With only a pair of teams -- once-beaten Payson and undefeated Continental -- remaining in the tournament, the two locked horns in a for-all-the-marbles struggle.
Because Payson's daunting task was to upset Continental twice on the Flagstaff squad's home field, the odds of Payson winning a title appeared slim.
Rising to the challenge, Payson played its way to a 9-6 victory that kept the team's championship hopes alive. Stellar pitching from Marshall, who came on in relief of York after one-half inning, paved the way to the upset.
Most of the offense necessary for the triumph was provided by Savage and York. Savage stroked home runs in the second and sixth frames. York tagged Continental pitching for round trip tickets in the second and fifth innings.
With Payson's win, the two once-beaten teams took to the field with the Area 1 title at stake.
Coach Halenar issued the pitching call to sore-armed Ever Figueroa. Due to an injury, the youngster was making his first appearance in the tournament.
Figueroa managed to go two innings before giving way to Ridge Halenar.
Behind the pitching of the two and York's fifth home run of the tournament, Payson prevailed 5-3 to claim the Area championship and the right to play St. Johns for the District crown.
Celebrating after the win, Coach Halenar might have torn his Achilles tendon and could be looking at surgery and about two months of rehabilitation.
Assisting Halenar as coaches of the Rim country team are Pat Haynes, Danny Savage and Scott Box.