The 15-team Wickenburg Wrangler Invitational softball tournament might have been the challenge the Lady Longhorns needed to better prepare themselves for the upcoming rugged region season.
"Overall, we found the chemistry and confidence needed to enter 3A East play," first-year coach Curtis Johnson said.
The Lady Horns will have the opportunity to put their new-found brashness to the test today, March 10, in Snowflake.
There, the Lady Horns will play the tradition-rich and defending region and state runner-up Lady Lobos.
The two teams will be renewing a rivalry that heated up small town Arizona for a decade when both PHS and SHS were fellow members of the 3A East region.
After Payson departed in 2003 to join the 4A Grand Canyon region, Flagstaff replaced the Lobos as the Lady Horns' softball rival.
With PHS returned to the 3A East, fans can bet the family farm the flames of the rivalry will be rekindled.
During the invitational, played March 3 and 4, the Lady Horns played their way to a 5-4 record and a fourth place finish.
After a slow start, Payson found its way into the consolation championship against the Apache Junction Prospectors.
Payson took a 6-2 lead into the sixth inning but were denied victory when AJ scored four runs to dead-knot the score.
The Prospector rally, Johnson said, was fueled by two PHS errors and several timely AJ hits.
In the seventh and deciding inning, the Prospectors scored a single run to salvage a 7-6 triumph and nail down third place.
On the first day of the tournament in pool play, the Horns stumbled, losing to both Prescott and Flagstaff.
"Both of those schools benefited from earlier season games as we were stepping onto the field for the first time this season," Johnson said.
The Lady Horns quickly rebounded from the two defeats to upset Fountain Hills 16-4.
"With a 1-2 record in pool play, we were seeded third in our bracket of the double elimination tournament," Johnson said.
As luck would have it, Payson drew one of the state's best teams, Wickenburg, in its opener.
"Wickenburg is one of the favorites in the 3A state race this year, sporting two good pitchers and a solid offensive attack," Johnson said.
Refusing to be intimidated by the Wranglers' reputation, the Lady Horns jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the second.
Wickenburg responded, however, with four runs in the bottom of the inning.
In the fourth, Payson pulled to within 4-3 only to see a two-run Wrangler home run late in the game nail down Wickenburg's 6-3 win.
The host Wranglers went on to finish the tournament as undefeated champions.
Payson's loss, however, didn't dampen Johnson's enthusiasm for his first prep team.
"We squandered several opportunities, leaving runners in scoring position ... with stronger defense and a couple of key hits the outcome could have been much different," he said.
The Lady Horns continued play in the diamond fray, knowing a loss would send them packing to the Rim Country.
"This is when the ladies put together a strong run by winning four games in a row and sending home Fountain Hills, Bourgade, Prescott and Willow Canyon," Johnson said.
"Our performance put us in the championship game of the consolation bracket against Apache Junction."
Although the Lady Horns came up a run short against the Prospectors, Johnson found plenty of reason for optimism.
"Every player contributed to the team's success during the tournament," he said. Two players, Candice Johnson and Hilary Armenta, were selected to the all-tournament team.
"Candice batted .555 for the entire tournament and was the main hurler in six of the nine games," Johnson said. "Hilary turned in a stellar performance at catcher and continued her successful hitting with a .500 batting average."
The coach also lauded Sarah Cadd for her power hitting and solid defense.
Senior Jadyn Walden drew the coach's praise for her hustle and overall contributions to the four-game tournament win streak.
The Lady Horns do not debut at home until March 14 when Holbrook visits for a region skirmish. Game time is 3:30 p.m.