Buoyed by invaluable experience picked up during the Gracie Haught Classic, the Lady Longhorn softball team returns to regular season action April 1 against Alchesay.
In the Classic, played March 24 and 25 at Rumsey Park, the Lady Horns finished with a 4-2 record, playing four Class 4A and 5A high schools.
"Playing those caliber of teams will help us later," coach Curtis Johnson said.
Following the clash vs. Alchesay in Whiteriver, Payson plays nine consecutive East region games.
Included in the schedule run is a March 20 game at Snowflake that was originally scheduled for March 10, but postponed due to weather and wet grounds.
If the Lady Horns perform well enough in those skirmishes to earn at least a top-four finish in the regular season standings, the team would be rewarded with its early season goal -- a berth in the 3A state tournament.
Game time in Whiteriver is 1 p.m. Saturday.
The Lady Horns enter the crucial portion of the season well armed with a standout pitcher and at least five quality hitters.
The team's mound ace, Candice Johnson, compiled a 3-1 record in the Haught Classic, posting a 2.37 ERA.
The flame-throwing sophomore also has to her credit a three-hit win over Fountain Hills and was an all-tournament selection at the Wickenburg Wrangler Invitational.
Johnson also wields a strong bat as evidenced by her .444 batting average in the Haught tournament.
As good as Johnson is at the plate, the biggest threat for Payson has been Hilary Armenta who earned all-tournament honors at the Classic.
In 15 plate appearances, she slugged nine hits (.600) including five singles, two triples, a double and a home run.
Her extra base hitting power and her nine RBIs were one of the reasons the Lady Horns played to a tie for third in the tournament field.
The Lady Horn offense has also received boosts recently from Aubrey Laird and Hannah Armenta.
Laird, only a sophomore, finished the Haught fray with a .500 batting average and two ground rule doubles. Hannah Armenta hit .353, had five RBIs and a home run.
Molly Agnes gives PHS a threat at the plate and on the base paths. In the Classic, she hit .417 and stole a team leading six bases.
As the Lady Horns prepare for the crucial part of the season, coach Johnson -- in his first year at the helm of the program -- remains optimistic.
"The 3A East division has always been very competitive in softball, but Payson should be in the thick of the race," he said.