For the Payson Little League Minor Division all-star team, the road to a District One championship and a berth into the state tournament travels through Springerville-Eagar.
The tiny mountain communities, located in eastern Arizona, are the site of the Little League District championships that began at 7 p.m. last evening with Payson taking on Show Low. (Results not available at press time).
Payson entered the skirmish as the Area One champion and Show Low is the Area Two titlist. Both teams were undefeated.
Before leaving yesterday, Monday, for Springerville-Eagar, Payson coach/manager Craig McMullen said he expected to start Miguel Mendoza on the hill against the gang from the Deuce of Clubs.
Payson opened district play red hot having dominated its competition in the area tournament played June 30 to July 5 in Page.
There, Payson's roll to the crown began with a 17-3 victory over Page and continued with a 14-1 win over Flagstaff Continental. In the tournament finale, Payson convincingly nailed down the area crown by run ruling Flagstaff Mt. Elden 24-0.
During the course of the tournament, Payson outscored its opponents by a whopping 55-4 margin.
"We are playing very well and hope to continue (to do so)," McMullen said.
The coach/manager cited his three aces pitchers -- Chris Cooper, Nick Mullen and Blake Cannon -- as solid contributors to the sweep in Page.
All three picked up pitching wins, going the distance on the hill.
Nick McMullen's victory was a no-hitter.
The pitchers' exceptional performance came as no surprise to Craig McMullen who predicted before the tournament opened that pitching would carry the team.
"About half our team were pitchers (in the regular season) and we know pitching is critical," he said.
Nick McMullen, the manager's son, took to the hill in Page, no stranger to tough competition and pressure situations.
Just months ago, he finished third in the Arizona State Pepsi Pitch, Hit and Run championships held at the Arizona Diamondbacks Chase Field.
Offensively in Page, Chance Randall punched two round trip tickets and Cannon blasted a grand slam home run.
Also participating in the district tournament with Payson and Show Low are Little League all-star teams from St. Johns and Flagstaff Continental.
If Payson can emerge victorious in the district tournament, it would advance -- for the second successive year -- to the state tournament to be played in Prescott.
In 2005, the Rim Country stars won both area and district championships by posting undefeated records.
In the state tournament, played in Phoenix's searing desert heat, Payson finished with a 2-4 mark.