Back to back wins over Safford and Winslow have propelled the Lady Longhorns into the elite final four of the Arizona State Class 3A softball championship tournament.
The Lady Horns play the Florence Gophers at 8 p.m. May 12 on Field 2 at Rose Mofford Softball Complex in Phoenix.
Should Payson emerge victorious, it would advance -- for the first time in the 20-year history of the program -- to the state championship.
In taking on Florence, the Lady Horns will be pitted against a team the Payson players and coach Curtis Johnson had plenty of opportunity to scout during the Gracie Haught Classic Tournament March 24 and 25 in Payson.
Because Florence and Payson were in different pools, they didn't meet head-to-head but the two tied for third place with identical 4-2 records.
"The state (tournament) game should be a good one because the two (teams) are pretty evenly matched," classic tournament director Charlene Hunt predicted.
If the Lady Horns can slip past Florence, they advance to the championship against the winner of a semifinal match involving South region champion Santa Cruz and West runner-up Estrella Foothills. That game is to be played at 8 p.m. May 12 on Field 3 at Rose Mofford.
In earning the final four berth, the Lady Horns opened the tournament, May 5, with a 7-1 win over Safford. The Bulldogs entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed from Safford. Payson represented the No. 3 seed out of the East region.
In a state elite eight game the following day, the Lady Horns easily dispatched North region champion Winslow, 15-3.
Sophomore Candice Johnson (14-6) was the winning pitcher in both games, going the entire distances on the hill.
Against Safford, she scattered five hits and didn't give up a run until the bottom of the seventh. The following day she was equally as good, striking out five and walking just one.
As good as Johnson hurled, it might have been a potent offense that was the key to the victories.
In thumping Winslow, the Lady Horns pounded out 19 hits to record their biggest offensive explosion of the season. Hannah Armenta's three run home run in the top of the seventh ended the game and any hopes Winslow had of a comeback.
"We dominated from start to finish," coach Johnson said.
Jadyn Walden finished 3-for-5 with four runs scored and one RBI. Molly Agnes was also 3-for-5, and Hilary Armenta was 2-for-4 with two RBI's.
Tiffany Klemstein and Sarah Cadd had two hits each. Kayce Pugel contributed one hit and two RBIs.
The highlight of the win over Safford was Cadd's solo home run in the top of the fourth inning that sealed the fate of the Dogs. Hannah Armenta was 2-for-4 and two RBIs and Candice Johnson 3-for-4 with 1 RBIs. Agnes had two hits and two runs scored.
In state tournament games involving other East region teams, No. 1 Snowflake was eliminated 1-0 by Florence, Show Low lost 3-1 to Estrella Foothills and Blue Ridge lost 6-1 to Santa Cruz.