The only thing hotter than Payson Little League pitcher Ridge Halenar was the searing desert heat that reached 100-plus degrees by 10 a.m. Saturday.
Tapped as the starting pitcher in Payson League League's first-ever state tournament game at Gilbert Crossroads Park, the 12-year-old Halenar hurled the Rim Major Division All-Stars to a convincing 10-1 first round win over Nogales. Over the course of six full innings, Halenar gave up just four hits and one earned run.
Halenar's offerings -- although they didn't appear to be overpowering -- continually frustrated Nogales hitters. More than a few returned to the dugout discouraged they couldn't put solid wood on one of the Payson hurler's pitches.
In addition to Halenar's solid mound performance, the all-stars thrived on heady defensive play that most fans wouldn't expect to be turned in by a group of 11- and 12-year olds.
When Nogales managed to put together some type of scoring threat, a standout play in the field usually put the Rim country clamps on the opportunity.
After a scoreless first two innings, Payson managed to break open the tie in the top of the third inning. A home run by Cody York, a triple from Halenar, Hunter Haynes' double and a bunt single by Sean Dougherty were the big hits in the offensive barrage that produced six runs.
In the bottom of the fourth, Nogales finally got to Halenar, touching him for a double and a single that produced one run.
Leading 6-1 in the top of the fifth, Payson hammered the final nail in the Nogales coffin rallying for four insurance runs. In the outburst, Haynes was hit by a pitch, Halenar doubled, Dougherty walked and Ryan Williams singled. A pair of Nogales wild pitches and a passed ball also helped fuel the Payson flare-up.
In the Little League area and district tournaments won by Payson, the Little Leaguers earned the nickname Cardiac Kids for their many rallies from behind that kept them alive in the postseason.
But against Nogales, there were no cardiac moments for them. Payson took command early in the game and never looked back.
Payson entered the state clash as the District 1 champions. Nogales advanced as a three-time District 8 title holder.
Prior to the game, all-star coach Bob Halenar said he was concerned how his young players would react to the pressures of playing in their first state tournament. His concerns were further heightened when the outwardly impressive Nogales players began their warm-up.
"They were certainly a lot bigger and older looking than (Payson all-stars)," the coach said.
According to Halenar, the players also took notice of the apparent size and strength of their opponents.
"But once the game got going, we forgot all about it," he said.
On hand in Gilbert to cheer the Rim country Major Division all-stars was a good-sized contingent of vociferous parents and fans.
Coach Halenar anticipates the same vocal support throughout the state tournament.
Payson's second game in pool play was 5:30 p.m. yesterday (Monday) against Safford Mount Graham. (Results not available at press time).
In the state format, the 13 qualifiers from around the state play in two pools of round robins that wrap up July 26.
Payson is aligned in the seven-team Pool B with champions from districts 3, 7, 8, 9 10 and 11.
At the conclusion of the round robins, the No. 1 seed from Pool A will play the No. 2 seed from Pool B. In the other semifinal tournament bracket, the No. 1 seed from Pool B takes on Pool A's No 2. Seed. The winners of those clashes meet at 7 p.m. July 30 for the state championship.
Payson has more pool games at 5:30 p.m. July 22 vs. District 3, 5:30 p.m. July 24 vs. District 9, 7:30 p.m. July 25 vs. District 10 and 7:30 p.m. July 26 vs. District 7.
All state tournament games are played at Crossroads Park at 2155 E. Knox Road in Gilbert.