What a difference a year can make.
Last season, the Show Low Cougars swept the Lady Longhorns in two regular season meetings. On both occasions, Cougar hurler Bobbi Joe Merrill's assortment of fireball offerings left Payson hitters confused and bewildered.
In game four of the Buckeye Invitational Tournament March 8, the Cougar's domination of Payson came to a screeching halt when Lady Horn hitters roughed up Merrill, and a reliever, for nine hits. The new-found offense helped pave the way to a 10-1 Lady Horn victory.
Coach Will Dunman, who led last year's team into the second round of the state tournament, is among those baffled by the reversal of fortunes between the two teams.
"I don't know the reasons. We just sat there on the buckets enjoying it," he said.
While Lady Horn hitters were pounding Merrill, Payson's senior hurler Rachel Ray (3-1) was dominating the Cougar lineup.
In four full innings on the hill, Ray gave up one hit, struck out 11 and walked three.
"She had a tremendous game," Dunman said.
Throwing fast balls, change-ups, drop pitches and newly acquired rise balls, Ray was able to keep the Cougar hitters off balance throughout the clash.
Offensively, Krista LaHaye, Rikki Ray and Brenna Zumbro contributed two hits each.
Both of LaHaye's hits were bunts that the Cougar defense wasn't prepared for.
Following the game, Dunman praised LaHaye for her heady play and base running.
"She made them make mistakes," he said.
Rikki Ray also was instrumental in the offense contributing a single, double and run scored in two official trips to the plate. In her other appearance, she was hit by a pitch.
Payson opens with 5-2-1 record
The Lady Horns' pursuit of tournament honors got into swing March 7 against the highly regarded Prescott Badgers. The game ended in a rare 0-0 tie that went seven full innings, but lasted only an hour and 15 minutes. Zumbro opened on the hill and hurled the entire shutout giving up just one hit. She also struck out six, walked one and stranded four baserunners.
The only offense generated by Payson was a first inning double off the bat of Sherra Johnson and a fourth-inning single by Zumbro.
In game two, Payson thumped Round Valley behind Ray's one-hit pitching.
Payson's five-hit attack centered around Johnson's single and two RBIs. Because Ray was dominating on the mound, that was all the offense Payson needed for the victory.
Game three, also played on the tournament's opening day, saw Payson run past Glendale Cortez 4-0. Zumbro was credited with the win giving up just one hit in six innings.
On the tournament's second day, immediately after the Lady Horns humbled Show Low, Zumbro hurled the Lady Horns to a 5-2 victory over Bradshaw Mountain.
The clash turned in Payson's favor in the second inning when consecutive singles by Laura Crabtree, Hilary Armenta, Rikki Ray and Jessica Coleman jumpstarted the Lady Horns to a 4-0 lead.
In the final two tournament games, the Lady Horns lost 4-0 to Prescott and 4-3 to Phoenix Washington. Ray absorbed the loss to Washington and Zumbro was the losing hurler against Washington.
The back-to-back defeats could be attributed to fatigue.
"We played four games in one day -- that's a lot of softball," Dunman said.
In addition to the Buckeye Tournament, the Lady Longhorns opened the season March 6 on PHS diamond with a 7-1 win over Fountain Hills. Rachel Ray picked up the victory, striking out nine.
The team returns to action at 3:30 p.m. today (Friday) in St. Johns. March 18, Globe visits Payson for a 3:30 p.m. contest.