Lady Longhorn softball fans breathed a sigh of relief when Flagstaff pitching ace Rhiannon Baca graduated last spring.
That relief may be short lived: it turns out Baca has a younger sister, Jessica, who may be as talented as her older sibling.
"Rhiannon was a good (pitcher), so is Jessica," PHS coach Will Dunman said.
Last season, Rhiannon led perennially powerful Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon region championship, relegating the Lady Horns to a runner-up finish.
For Payson to avoid another second-place finish, the Lady Horns must find a way to solve any pitching wizardry the younger Baca might throw at them.
The Eagles ace can be countered with a pair of fine Payson hurlers -- senior Morgan O'Haver and freshman Candyce Johnson.
O'Haver has the pitching experience having been No. 2 in the Lady Horn rotation last season; Johnson has played several seasons of competitive club ball in the Valley.
According to Dunman, both hurlers will see plenty of action as the season wears on.
The starting battery mate for O'Haver and Johnson will probably be Hillari Armenta who started last year. Armenta's younger sister, Hannah, also is vying for playing time as either a catcher or a utility infielder.
A huge void Dunman must fill is at first base where Sherra Johnson, Candyce's older sister, was the starter for two years before graduating last spring.
In preseason practices, Dunman has used Kaycee Pugel, a varsity reserve last season, in the position.
"She'll do well there," Dunman predicted.
Around the horn, the coach has given considerable practice time to Katie Plumb at second, Molly Agnes at third and Jessica Coleman at the hot corner. Plumb is a senior, Agnes is starting for the second year and Coleman is a returning veteran with ample infield experience.
The trio's presence gives the Lady Horns a strong defensive infield.
Dunman also can call upon Sarah Agnes and Johnson -- when she's not pitching -- for spot infield duty.
In the outfield, senior Tanya Davis returns to anchor a crew that possibly includes Ashley Anesin in centerfield and Krista LaHaye in right. Anesin, a junior, is a returning letter-winner.
LaHaye is an outstanding athlete with unlimited potential but is rehabilitating a serious knee injury that required extensive surgery.
According to assistant coach Kadi Tenney, LaHaye has almost returned to full speed but has been instructed to go easy until completely recovered.
Also in the outfield, O'Haver could see action when not pitching.
A trademark of Dunman's teams has long been an ability to play "small ball" which includes bunting, slap-hitting, base-stealing and hitting and running.
"We want to be aggressive," he said. "We'll do the same things this year. I expect us to be a good hitting team that will have some power, too."
The only kink in the coach's plans is that the players haven't had many opportunities to tune their offensive skills. Outdoor practices have been limited by rainy weather. Most hitting practices have taken place in old PHS gymnasium.
When the offense can get to the field, Coleman, Davis, Plumb, O'Haver, Hillari Armenta and Molly Agnes are all veteran hitters who only need practice and playing time to excel.
Until the offense comes around, however, Dunman anticipates the Lady Horns will have to depend on good defense and stellar pitching from O'Haver and Johnson.
In assessing the players' efforts during preseason practices, both Dunman and Tenney characterize the athletes as ones with good attitudes and strong work ethics.
"There are no slackers," Tenney said. "It's a great group who work very hard."
"They've been busting their tails," Dunman agreed. "They know all positions are up for grabs."
With preseason training about to end, the Lady Horns are set to open the team's final season in the 4A conference March 1 at Apache Junction.
Non-region action continues March 3 at Scottsdale Coronado. Game time for both is 3:30 p.m.
Next season, PHS returns to the 3A conference it had been a member of for two decades before the school was realigned to 4A two years ago.