The highest hopes of the Payson Little League Majors All-Star Team were dashed Saturday when it barely missed qualifying for the final four.
The team's 3-3 tournament record was two wins shy of what it needed to make the championships, but coach Bob Halenar said he is still proud of his "kids," as he fondly dubbed the players.
Two disappointing losses to Prescott North and Gilbert National clinched the Payson team's slot at No. 3 in their tournament pool, just one place behind the final four. They tied Gilbert for the spot.
Halenar said the team should have won the July 25 game against Prescott, which they lost in a 3-2 nail-biter.
Payson scored two runs before the bottom of the fifth inning when two Prescott players made it on base. After a third Prescott player hit a home run resulting in three RBIs, Payson couldn't recover.
"Those kids (Prescott) were undefeated when we played them," he said. "My kids played really well and held them at three runs. I really feel we were better than them."
The team's July 26, 5-0 loss to Gilbert also was brutal, Halenar said.
"That was a well-played game," he added. "We just couldn't hit the ball. We left nine people on base and they struck us out nine times."
But that was nothing compared to when the team played Paradise Valley North.
"They slaughtered us," Halenar said of the 15-1 loss. "That was the best team in our pool by far."
There were two pools in the tournament: Pool A and Pool B (Payson's pool).
Arrowhead Little League and Chandler Nationals were the top two teams in Pool A; Paradise Valley North and Prescott North won in Pool B.
Arrowhead will go on to play Prescott while Chandler will face Paradise Valley.
Payson's three wins occurred earlier in the week. They beat Nogales 10-1 July 19, Safford Mount Graham 8-7 July 21 and Kingman 3-2 July 24.
"I think we played really good," said Dakota Marshall, 12-year-old first baseman and occasional pitcher. "I mean, this is the first time the Payson All-Stars made it to state. So we did pretty good."
Halenar said the team would not have made it so far without Marshall's skill.
"Dakota really stepped up for us," he said. "He always gave 110 percent. Whether it was the dugout, the field or on the mound, Dakota was ready to play."
Halenar said the catching and "star pitching" of 12-year-old Hunter Haynes also was vital to the team's success.
"Hunter, by far, was the best pitcher on the team," he said. "When we had clutch games and a pitcher was falling apart, I would always call on Hunter to finish out the game."
Haynes said, "It would have been nice (to win), but we went pretty far ... We played as a team and not as individuals."
Despite not qualifying for the championship, the team's season was somewhat of a Cinderella story.
To qualify for the tournament, the team began playing in Flagstaff. While they won the first game, they lost the second, which placed them in the loser's bracket.
After working their way up the loser's bracket, the team qualified for the district and made its way to the tournament ---- the first time ever in Payson Little League history.
The team was dubbed the "Cardiac Kids" because of their infamous habit of falling behind in runs and coming back for the win at the last minute.
The team's success story put more fans in the seats and one even wrote a letter to boost team spirit after a tough loss.
"When people at home think of you or see you, they will be reminded of the Payson Little League Majors of 2003, forever known as the Comeback Cardiac Kids," read the anonymous letter. "You are special. You are magical ... You are the Payson Comeback Cardiac Kids forever, and your loyal fans say, ‘Thank you, forever.'"