The chase for the East region volleyball championship couldn't get much tighter.
That's because a trio of once-beaten teams, Holbrook, Snowflake and Payson, are locked in head-to-head duels at the midway point of the campaign.
A glimpse of which of the three squads, all 5-1, has the best shot at winning the East crown will unfold when Holbrook takes on Payson today, Tuesday, in Wilson Dome and the Lady Horns travel Oct. 5 to Snowflake. Game time for both matches is 6:30 p.m.
The Holbrook Roadrunners are the last East region team to beat the Lady Horns winning Sept. 7 in Holbrook.
Since that loss, the Lady Longhorns have been red-hot, winning nine consecutive matches and the championship of the Chino Valley Invitational.
Following today's fray, the schedule doesn't get any easier for the Lady Horns who, two days later, must take on Snowflake on the Lobos' home court.
In the first meeting of the two teams, Sept. 12 in Wilson Dome, Payson ended a 12-year drought against Snowflake winning 3-0.
Former Lady Longhorn coach Steven Konvalin, who now lives in the Valley, remembers the last win over Snowflake, before the recent victory.
"I remember well," he said. "I was the coach. It was 1994 and the fans charged the floor at the end of the game.
"Tell the girls good luck in beating them again."
PHS coach Arnold Stonebrink has called the Snowflake and Holbrook matches crucial to playoff hopes. He said his goal was to put together game plans that would give the Lady Horns a good chance of emerging victorious.
In Payson's last East outing, Sept. 28 against Show Low, the Lady Horns easily dispatched of the Cougars 25-11, 25-19 and 25-23.
"Show Low is rebuilding. They lost their entire starting team from last year except one who is a terrific hitter," he said.
In the first game, the Lady Horns jumped out to a 10-1 lead thanks to nine consecutive service winners by Mollee Lee and 15 kills by Tori Wilbanks.
"It was a hitting clinic for Payson," Stonebrink said.
In the second game, the Lady Horns survived by six points but incurred a huge scare when Wilbanks, a senior outside hitter, went down with a knee injury.
On Monday, Wilbanks revealed the injury was not serious and she would be able to play against Holbrook.
Without Wilbanks in the lineup, the Horns relied on the play of Hannah Armenta and Lee.
"Fortunately, we were able to get good production out of them," Stonebrink said.
In the third game, Show Low showed plenty of spunk, but the Lady Horns had too much firepower, especially in serving.
"The girls had a great edge to their serving game. They chalked up 11 aces and kept the Cougars off balance all night with floating and topspin serves," Stonebrink said.
Chelsea D'Arcangelo and Lee both served three aces.
At the net, Wilbanks had 17 kills despite limited playing time. Jenna Robertson and Armenta scored nine kills each.
Chino Valley Champs
The Lady Longhorns' season-long success story added another chapter Sept. 30 in Chino Valley where the team won the championship of the Cougar Invitational.
Payson and Fountain Hills finished the day's play with identical 4-1 records, but because the Lady Horns beat FH in head-to-head play, PHS was declared the winner and Fountain finished as the runner-up.
At the conclusion of the tournament, Brooke Cannon and Wilbanks were both named to the all-tournament team.
For Wilbanks, it was the second time this season she has been chosen as all-tournament. Her other selection occurred Sept. 2 at the Payson Invitational. Particularly impressive in the pair's efforts were the 47 kills by Wilbanks and Cannon's 122 assists.
Wilbanks said being named to an all-tournament team is always thrilling, but she was putting that behind her and was focusing on Snowflake and Holbrook.
The victory in the Cougar Invitational, can be attributed to the second round win over Fountain Hills which turned out to be the tie-breaker tournament officials turned to when Payson and Fountain Hills posted identical records.
In the tournament format, teams played one game to 60 points with a 40-limit on each game.
In the FH vs. Payson clash, the two foes battled toe-to-toe most of the match. While the Lady Horns led most of the way, the cushion was usually only by a few points.
The Lady Horns' lone loss, which ended a nine-match winning streak, was 53-60 to the Camp Verde Cowboys.
Lady Horns vs. Holbrook
When: 6:30 p.m. today, Tuesday
Where: Wilson Dome