Charlene Hunt is passionate about building the Gracie Haught Softball Classic into one of the finest high school competitions in Arizona.
The event is a way of honoring the memory of a 3-year-old girl, who was killed Feb. 6, 2004 in a tragic accident in Star Valley.
At the time of Gracie's death, her mother, Bobbie Jo Haught, was the Lady Longhorns' junior varsity softball coach. Gracie was a frequent visitor to practice and games.
"We all remember (Gracie) being there," Hunt said. "We kind of expected she would always (be there)."
Following the toddler's death, then-Lady Longhorn head coach Will Dunman, Hunt and other staff members at Payson High met to organize the memorial tournament.
"We wanted to honor Gracie's family and all that Bobbie Jo had done for the program," Dunman said. "This was our way of showing our respect for Gracie and the family."
In the beginning
The inaugural tournament, held in the spring of 2005, turned into a challenge for event organizers when rain and wet playing fields forced the cancellation of some games.
Despite the unforeseen setback, those who attended were elated to be able to play some tournament games during what turned out to be one of the wettest springs on record.
"The coaches left here elated," Hunt said. "To be able to play any games was a victory."
The following year, as organizers prayed for clear, blue skies, the tournament grew into a 10-team field that played in two pools of five teams each.
This time around, weather was not a factor.
"The weather was beautiful. It was a blessing," Hunt said.
The Florence Gophers were in Pool B. The team later went on to defeat Payson, 2-1, in the Class 3A state tournament semifinals.
The Gophers and PHS did not meet in the Haught showdown, but the Lady Horns finished 4-2 and tied for third.
The PHS express was stoked by the pitching of Candice Johnson who compiled a 3-1 record and sterling 2.37 ERA over the course of two days.
Ace in the hole
Johnson will return this season to lead the Lady Horn charge in the third annual event, planned for March 23 and 24 on three Rumsey Park fields.
This year, the tournament has grown to 12 teams that will compete in three pools -- A, B or C -- during the first days of play.
The Lady Horns are aligned in Pool A along with Mingus, Snowflake and Florence.
PHS Coach Curtis Johnson, like most prep coaches, prefers to step away from focusing on the "revenge factor." But, for fans, pool play will afford the Lady Horns the opportunity to make amends for last year's heartbreaking state tournament loss to the Gophers.
The game could also turn into a preview of two of the finest 3A teams in the state.
Lady Horn pool games are scheduled for:
- 9 a.m., Payson vs. Mingus at Rumsey I
- Noon, Payson vs. Snowflake at Rumsey II
- 3 p.m., Payson vs. Florence at Rumsey III
The results of pool play will be used to seed the 12 teams into a single championship bracket set to begin at 6 p.m. Friday and wrap up at 6 p.m. the following day, with the gold medal finale on the Rumsey II diamond.
For any high school softball event to be a success, sponsors must be found willing to supply the money needed for umpires, softballs, scorekeepers and other necessities.
Since the inception of the tournament, organizers have been able to attract the sponsorship of the Payson Jack in the Box, Kevin Dick Financial and Investment Services and the Payson Parks and Recreation Department, where Hunt is employed as a recreation specialist.
Sponsorship funds have also arrived in the form of prize money earned at the annual Mazatzal Casino Home Run Derby.
In the 2006 women's division, first place was taken by the Gracie's Dazies I team of Molly Hunt, Marci Rush and Jill Boston. The trio slugged 17 home runs and donated the first place prize of $500 to the Classic.
Gracie's Dazies II -- Sandee Koon, Bobbie Jo Haught and Tracy Hoffman -- took third place with nine and chose the Classic to be the recipient of the $200 prize.
The generosity of all the sponsors has drawn Hunt's praise.
"Without them, we wouldn't have a tournament," she said.
All profits earned from the upcoming tournament will benefit the Payson High School softball program.
For more tournament information, call Hunt at (928) 474-5242, ext 260.