In front of a spirited and festive crowd of Lady Longhorn fans who had earlier enjoyed a deep-pit barbecue beef dinner, Payson chalked up a crucial 5-2 victory over rival Show Low.
With the Friday night win on PHS diamond, the Lady Longhorns wrapped up the regular season as East region runners-up. The team now advances to the state tournament as a No. 2 seed and will play the South's third-place finisher. That game is slated for 3 p.m., May 9, at Rose Mofford field No. 3 in Phoenix.
While the victory over Show Low took center stage during the festive afternoon and evening, the event also drew about 700 people who were on hand to enjoy barbecue and plenty of small-town camaraderie.
"It was just a lot of fun, a great community event," Lady Longhorn scorekeeper and Payson native Charlene Hunt said. "It kind of reminded me of the way we all used to get together to support our teams."
Hunt helped organize the benefit barbecue that was prepared by her husband, Albert.
On hand to help serve the meals were many of the players from the women's Hot Ice slow-pitch softball team.
Charlene Hunt estimates the benefit, which was sponsored by Roy Haught Excavating, earned about $3,500. That money will be donated to the PHS softball and baseball teams.
Adding to the excitement of the evening was the first pitch ceremonies that focused on Payson High's first softball coach -- Richard Alvarez. In 1987, Alvarez helped start the Lady Longhorn softball program. During his tenure, the former coach helped turn the Lady Horns from a regional doormat into a state tournament team.
Ray dominates Cougar hitters
In the win over the Cougars, Rachel Ray (7-2) got the starting call from coach Will Dunman and turned in a solid seven-inning effort in which she did not give up an earned run. During her stint on the hill, Ray struck out 13, walked one and gave up just one hit. That base knock, a double by Cougar pitching ace Bobbi Joe Merrill, accounted for one of Show Low's runs.
The game's tide turned in Payson's favor in the bottom of the fifth with the score tied 2-2. Brenna Zumbro, the team's leading hitter, got on base on a single and advanced to second on a walk to Hillary Armenta. After taking third on an error, Zumbro scored on a throwing error by the Cougar catcher.
Leading 3-2, the Lady Horns tacked on two insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth.
Krystal McRae, batting as a pinch hitter, got the two-run rally off to a jump start with a single. Ray's sacrifice advanced McRae to second.
A triple off the bat of Doni Miotto scored McRae.
Payson added its final run minutes later when Jessica Coleman's sacrifice bunt sent Miotto scampering across the plate.
For Show Low, Merrill absorbed the loss after hurling the entire game and striking out eight Payson hitters.
Getting to Merrill might be just the spark the Lady Longhorn offense needs before the state tournament begins.
In two meetings last season between Show Low and Payson, Merrill hurled the frustrated Longhorns to twin wins.
Earlier this season, Merill held on for a 1-0 victory over the Lady Horns. Many believe that if the Lady Horns can hit the crafty offerings of Merrill, they can handle just about any hurler they'll meet at state.