Lady Longhorn coach Arnold Stonebrink is not letting his team's lackluster showing in the opening round of the state tournament dampen his enthusiasm for his players.
"The girls' performance throughout the year exceeded my expectations and it was an absolute joy to coach and work with them," he said.
The coach was reflecting on the season following the team's return Nov. 2 from Peoria High School where the Lady Horns were eliminated 3-0 by the Round Valley Elks.
Payson lost the match 25-12, 25-19 and 25-16.
"It was very disappointing. We never seriously challenged them," Stonebrink said.
The stunning loss surprised the coach, who entered the fray confident his team could avenge two matches PHS lost to RV during the regular season.
"I thought the team was prepared," he said.
"We had prepared ourselves to challenge Round Valley's strengths and had four great practices leading up to the tournament."
But a combination of poor play, tight officiating and an unusual environment stymied the Lady Horns' effort.
"Round Valley tore us up with their serves," Stonebrink said.
"They kept us off-balance with darting short and long floating serves that our serve receivers did not adjust well to."
The Elks' domination at the service line led to 13 aces.
"That and several free balls back for the Elks, hurt us," Stonebrink said.
The Lady Horns also struggled with their passing and were never able to provide good sets for their hitters.
"We couldn't get into a good rhythm," Stonebrink said.
Also hindering the Payson effort was stickler officiating from the referees that the Lady Hornsever adjusted to.
"At state, they (officials) called the matches extremely tight, much tighter than any match we had all year," Stonebrink said.
"It was a foreign aspect that hurt us, but Round Valley had the same handicap and adjusted better than we did.
"All year long, we had referees that called the matches rather loosely and let us play."
Also adversely affecting the team was Peoria High's School alternate alternate gym playing site which featured less-than-desirable lighting and a low ceiling.
The coach said those conditions hindered the way the Lady Horns returned Round Valley's hard, top-spin serves.
Some returns bounced off the low ceiling.
"This is no sour grapes, though. Even though we play in a dome with a high ceiling, Round Valley plays in a dome with an even higher ceiling.
"Again, Round Valley adjusted better than we did," Stonebrink said.
In all three games of the match, the Lady Elks jumped out to early leads, forcing Payson to futilely play catch up.
"There wasn't a whole lot of drama," Stonebrink said.
In the third game, after the Lady Horns missed five serves, PHS rallied to pull within 15-13 only to see RV go on a 10-3 run to finish the match.
"That was our last hurrah," Stonebrink said.
Following the loss, the coach cited Mollee Lee as "the only hitter who had reasonable success" and Chelsea D'Arcangelo for her five service winners.
Hannah Lee drew plaudits for her serve-receiving and Cydney Figueroa was lauded for her team-leading 13 assists.
Early this week, Stonebrink said he was disappointed in the loss, but was confidentthe first-round performance was not a true indication of the team's ability.
Rather, he said, a 12-5 regular season record, East region second-place finish, fourth-place effort in the Flagstaff Coconino Tournament, bronze-medals honors in Payson Invitational and runner-up showing at the Chino Valley tournament, were more indicative of what the team accomplished.
"I think the girls surprised a fair amount of people with their performance, especially considering we lost such valuable people to graduation last year," Stonebrink said.
After RV beat Payson, the Lady Elks were eliminated in the quarterfinals. Parker stunned highly favored Monument Valley 3-2, to win the Class 3A state championship. MV entered the finale unbeaten in match play.
The PHS team will gather one final time for an upcoming season-ending awards ceremony. The date, time and place of it will be announced later this week.