The Longhorn baseball team begins pursuit of Payson High's second state championship today, Friday, at the spring training home of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Game time against Sahuarita is noon on Field 5 at Maryvale Baseball Park.
The Longhorns (14-11 overall; 9-3 in the region) enter the fray as the East's No. 3 seed. Payson wrapped up the regular season tied with Snowflake for second place, but because the Lobos beat the Horns twice, Snowflake received the second seed and Payson fell to third.
Sahuarita (22-3-1) represents the No. 2 seed from the South region and takes to the tournament one of the state's finest all-around players in Fernando Mejia.
Offensively, Mejia is hitting .492 with eight home runs, but it might be his pitching, not his bat, that carries his team.
When called upon to hurl, he's responded with a miniscule .503 ERA.
Along with Mejia, junior hurler Manny Berreda, who is being recruited by Arizona State, leads Sahuarita.
"He throws the ball consistently 88-89 mph, so he's got some pop," Longhorn pitcher Jason Sweet said.
"We've cranked up the pitching machine to the high 80s in practice, so we are more than ready for him."
Berreda is also touted in prep baseball circles for throwing an outstanding slider.
The Longhorns will counter Sahuarita's starter, possibly Berreda, with Sweet who has started nine games this year and has posted a deceiving 3-5 record.
Some of his losses have been the hard luck variety when the defense faltered or the offense failed to produce.
Evidence of his pitching prowess is in his conference high of 76 strikeouts.
With a 4.32 ERA, Sweet can throw in the high 80s and has good off-speed pitches, including a slider.
Sweet said his club coaches in the Valley have told him professional scouts will attend the Payson vs. Sahuarita state opener.
"I'm told (the scouts) want to see who is the better pitcher, me or Berreda," Sweet said. "We are very evenly matched. It should be fun."
Offensively, senior Matt LeVac, who has a team high .449 batting average including five home runs, leads the Longhorn offense.
Of his 35 hits this season, 17 have been for extra bases.
Also for Payson, Jacob Willis is hitting .380 and Sweet .348.
Matt Behrens (.328) could be Payson's secret weapon in that he has good speed, and with 13 stolen bases he was the East region leader.
A base runner like Behrens can give an opposing pitcher fits.
If the Longhorns can slip by the first round, they would play again at 10:30 a.m. Saturday against the winner of a first-round match up between Greyhills and River Valley.
Thee championship game is set for 8 p.m. May 13.
All games are at Maryvale Park.