As the Longhorn baseball express steams toward postseason play, it's fueled by a potent offense that features one .400-plus hitter and five others hitting over the magical .300 mark.
The hitting star, Matt LeVac, leads the Horns with a .415 average that includes three home runs.
In the East region, only Josh Copeland of Blue Ridge -- with four home runs -- has slugged more circuit blasts than LeVac.
In addition to LeVac's home runs, he also has seven doubles, a triple, 24 runs scored and 13 RBIs. The hard-nosed senior has also been an iron man for Payson, appearing in all 21 games.
All season long, Matt Behrens has hooked up with LeVac to give the Longhorns a strong one-two punch in the middle of the lineup. Behrens is hitting .364, has six RBIs and is second in the East region in stolen bases with 12. He also leads the Longhorns in walks with 12.
As a pitcher, Behrens sports the best record on the staff, 4-2, and a 3.868 ERA.
Complimenting LeVac and Behrens' red hot performances has been the slugging and pitching of Jacob Willis who is hitting at a .351 clip including three doubles, three triples, two home runs and nine RBIs.
When Willis is not hitting, he's been the Horns' most effective pitcher with a 3.448 ERA and a 2-2 record. In 22 innings, he's struck out 23 opposing batsmen, walked just eight and has thrown only one wild pitch -- a remarkable accomplishment for a prep hurler.
Payson's other .300 plus hitters
include Jason Sweet (.321), Ridge Halenar (.314) and Andy Sanders (.302).
Halenar, a freshman and former Pepsi Pitch, Hit and Run champion, has appeared in only 11 games after being sidelined most of the early season with an injury.
In the clashes he has played in, the freshman has shown good power, slugging two doubles, two triples and a home run.
Sweet is the team's RBI leader with 15, has scored 10 runs and has two home runs and a double.
As effective as he has been at bat, it's his pitching that coach Jerry Daniels relies on most.
Sweet, however, has been the team's hard luck hurler, posting a 1-5 record. He leads the team in starts with seven and is usually matched up against the opposing team's mound ace.
He is also by far the team leader in innings pitched (43.1), batters faced (224) and strikeouts (54). His 4.846 ERA is higher than what he hoped for at the onset of the season, but his fastball is one of the best in the region and when he has command of all his pitches, he's tough to beat.
A junior, Sweet has aspirations of playing at the college level and has given up other sports in order to play off-season club ball in the Valley.
In addition to the pitching of Sweet, Willis and Behrens, Daniels has called upon freshman Hunter Haynes for mound duty. He's responded with a 2-1 record and a 4.846 ERA in 17.1 innings.
On to state
If the Longhorns advance to the state tournament as the East's No. 3 seed -- which appears likely -- they face the unenviable task of taking on either Sahuarita or Chandler Seton Catholic of the South region.
The two foes are currently locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the South championship. Whichever team falls to second in the final standings will probably face Payson in the opening round of the state tournament May 5 at Maryvale Baseball Park.
With a 21-2-1 record, 9-1 in the South, Sahuarita is being hailed as the best 3A team in the state. Its star, Fernando Meja, leads the South region in hitting (.491), RBIs (28) and is second in home runs with six.
As a pitcher, Meja has proven to be almost unhitable, with a miniscule .482 ERA.
Seton is 14-2 overall, 8-1 in the south, and has outscored its opponents by a whopping 176-62 margin.
If the Longhorns can survive the first round, they would most likely face a less formidable opponent the following day against the winner of a North No. 1 vs. West No. 4 first round game.
The 16 team state tournament is single elimination.