Longhorns Hope To Overcome Injury, Inconsistency At State Tournament

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Senior Jacob Willis could be shouldering the pitching load when the Longhorn baseball team opens pursuit of the Arizona Class 3A state championship at 3 p.m. today at Maryvale Baseball Park.

"We'll start him, if he is close to 100 percent," coach Jerry Daniels said.

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Members of the Longhorn boys baseball team advancing to state are Nick Abraham, Nick Herring, Dale Williams, Ever Figueroa, Jason Sweet, Gage Conway, Hunter Hayes, Dylan Boyd, Devin England, Anthony Pearce, Jacob Willis, Lucas Barr, Ridge Halenar, Tyler Savage and Zak Miller. Coaches are Jerry Daniels, David Daniels and Pat Haynes.

Willis has been sidelined for more than a week with an ankle injury suffered days before an April 26 regular season-ending game against Show Low.

Willis returned to the practice field Monday afternoon but "was only about 75 percent," Daniels said. "His injury is something like a shoulder separation. (The ankle) goes in and out on him."

If Willis is indeed the starter, he will take to the mound a 2-1 record and 4.81 ERA average in 33 inning pitches. Willis has hurled three complete games.

If Willis can't start, the nod could go to senior right-hander Jason Sweet, who has been a front-line pitcher for the past three seasons. Sweet sports a 4-6 record and a 6.25 ERA.

Whichever pitcher does start, he'll have a highly capable battery mate in sophomore Ridge Halenar, who has not committed an error this season.

In addition to his skills behind the plate and ability to handle pitchers, Halenar has a strong enough arm to keep base runners honest.

Offensively, he's been on a home run binge, having slugged four circuit blasts. Couple his power with a .449 batting average and the Longhorns roster has a force behind the plate to reckon with.

Payson also has in its arsenal, a legitimate big time slugger in Willis, who currently sports the second best average in the region with .556.

Only Snowflake's Derek Fusselman (.589) had a better batting average during the regular season.

Willis also has good speed on the bat paths, as evidenced by his region-high 21 stolen bases.

Whether his ankle injury will slow him during the state tournament won't be known until today's play opens.

The Horns have a bevy of other talented players to take to state, including Tyler Savage, Hunter Hayes, Matt Jones and Anthony Pearce.

As good as the Horns have been, the knock on the team most of the year has been inconsistency.

"We've shot ourselves in the foot several times," Daniels said. "We must come together as a team."

The team's inconsistency reared its ugly head in the season ending 9-5 defeat to the Show Low Cougars.

After the Horns rallied in the bottom of the fifth to tie the score at 5-5, the wheels came off the PHS victory wagon.

A series of Payson errors and miscues let Show Low off the hook, as coach David Nikolaus' Cougars rallied for four runs in the top of the sixth to salvage the victory.

"It was a tough loss," Daniels said.

Dog-on scouting report

As the East region's No. 4 seed, the Horns (18-10 and 7-5) have the unenviable task of taking on North region champion Winslow (21-9 and 9-0) in the opening round.

Winslow coach Art Griffith has been at the helm of the baseball program for 38 years and his teams are usually a given in the postseason.

The Dogs have had some down seasons but have always had a rich baseball tradition to buoy them.

This year, Griffith has a veteran crew of players who have dominated region play.

The North region, some prep baseball purists will argue, is weak in baseball because it is made up mostly of Navajo and Hopi reservation schools, where basketball is the sport of choice.

But the Bulldogs have shown well outside the region in victories over Blue Ridge, Holbrook, Camp Verde, Snowflake, Estrella Foothills and Fountain Hills.

In winning those games, Winslow rode the stellar play of Stephen Soehner, Jordan Echols, Roman Guzman, Mario Sells, Steffen Bailon, Tommy Gomez and Ty Hancock.

Soehner is the team's offensive leader with a .500 batting average, 45 RBIs and seven home runs.

He's a potent hitter that Willis -- or whoever starts for Payson -- must handle carefully.

Sells has six home runs and 41 RBIs. Bailon, the Dogs' leadoff hitter, is second in the region in stolen bases with 21 thefts in 22 attempts.

Echols and Guzman dominate on the mound for the Dogs with ERAs of 1.16 and 1.33 respectively.

Griffith, who last summer coached the U.S. 16-years-and-under baseball team to a gold medal in the Pan American games in Venezuela, believes his team has all the right stuff.

"I feel good about our kids," he said. "We are solid and hit the ball."

After scouting Payson in its loss to Show Low, Griffith said, "They are a good team and (they) have played some good competition.

Second round

If the Horns can muzzle the Bulldogs' bark in the state opener, Payson will advance to a second round game at noon on Saturday, against the winner of the Wickenburg vs. Safford first-round clash.

The final four games will be played May 11 and the state championship at 8 p.m. May 12 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

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