There's some big cleats to fill in the Lady Longhorn softball program.
No longer on the team roster are five athletes who last year played huge roles in the team's run to an East region second place finish and state tournament berth.
Rachel Ray and Laura Crabtree graduated with the class of 2003. Rikki Ray opted to play off-season club volleyball and Krystal McRae is participating in track rather than softball. Also, Krista LaHaye could be sidelined for the season by a knee injury suffered in soccer.
At first glance, the absence of five veterans seems a tough obstacle to overcome. But, coach Will Dunman is confident returning letter winners and a handful of first-year varsity players up from last year's jayvee squad have the makings of a good team.
"This is a good group. We are excited about them," he said. "They are very coachable, get along well and are willing to help each other out."
Their cohesiveness, he added, could make up for any lack of playing ability.
The key returner on the team is senior hurler Brenna Zumbro. The fireballer, who plays club ball in the off season, has built a reputation as one of the finest pitchers in the conference. Currently several colleges are courting her services. Zumbro is also a workhorse who can be counted on to take the mound day-after-day and pitch-after-pitch.
Zumbro's battery mate, Heather Armenta, is a steady backstop who has plenty of experience handling pitchers.
The team also returns steady first baseman Sharra Johnson. Since she moved to Payson two years ago, Johnson has proven to be a steady defender and a solid hitter.
Around the horn, the team will start veterans at second (Jessica Coleman) and third (Tanya Davis). Both are capable defenders and can swing the bat when called upon.
In the outfield, the lone returning starter is centerfielder Donielle Miotto.
Dunman and assistant coach Kadi Hunt's task in preseason practices has been to fill in voids at shortstop, in the outfield and to find a backup pitcher and reliever for Zumbro.
The shortstop the coaches are searching for could be Katie Plumb or utility players Jadyn Walden, Molly Agnes and Casey Pugel. All played on the lower levels last season but earned varsity roster spots with good performances in preseason practices.
Outfield candidates up from last year's jayvee team include Ashley Anesin and Amanda Palandri. Walden and Plumb also can play in the outfield.
The only freshman on varsity is infielder Tamara Crabdree.
The No. 2 pitcher is probably Morgan O'Haver. Since she was in middle school, O'Haver has shown the potential to become a top varsity hurler. This year, she should have the opportunity to finally realize that potential.
With the varsity roster of 14 in place, a huge challenge for the coaching staff is to find the positions each one can contribute best to the team effort.
"We're so young, we have to find how who's going to play where and how well," Dunman said. "To be a good team, we have to get them in their positions."
Accomplishing that goal has been difficult mostly because rain and poor field conditions have limited practice time. Bad weather also forced the cancellation of a preseason scrimmage Feb. 23 against Winslow.
Without the extensive practices and the scrimmage, Dunman's plans are to use the Buckeye and Kingman tournaments (March 12-13 and March 26-27) as proving grounds for his players.
"We play both those before (Grand Canyon regional) play begins," he said. "Those tournaments will help us sort things out."
Regional action begins April 1 in Flagstaff.
In assessing the team thus far, Dunman predicts the Lady Horns' hitting could be a strength.
"I think we'll surprise some people and score some runs," he said. "We'll play the short game better than the past."
His prediction is that if the short game -- the bunt, slap, steal, hit and run -- strategies are executed well and Zumbro and O'Haver pitch as expected, the Lady Horns could make some noise in the 4A conference.
For the team to excel, it will have to find a way to beat a tough Flagstaff Eagle squad that has dominated regional play in past years.
"We also expect Mingus to be good," Dunman said.
Although the Lady Horns are first-year members of the region, the team has played most of the Grand Canyon teams in past seasons.
"We've played everyone but Flagstaff," Dunman said.
Ironically, Dunman was a coach at Flagstaff High before moving to Payson.
In addition to Dunman and Hunt on the varsity staff, Bobbi Jo Haught could help out later in the season. Eddie Harrison will oversee the freshman/jayvee team with help from Toby Waugh.
The good news for Payson fans is that new seating is being installed that should provide plenty of good views for all.