If play in the Payson Invitational is any indication of the intensity of the upcoming East region volleyball title chase, the Lady Longhorns will have their hooves full when they meet rival Blue Ridge.
In the tournament, played Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 in Wilson Dome and old PHS gym, the two teams met three times with the Lakeside crew returning to the White Mountains with a 2-1 edge.
After dropping a match to Blue Ridge in opening day pool play, the lady Horns avenged the loss later that same evening with a pulsating 2-0 victory.
In the match, Payson dominated the first game 21-16 and then pulled out a miracle 14-13 overtime victory in the second.
With 19 seconds remaining in the game, the Yellow Jackets led 13-11 and needed only to stall to claim the victory.
But, the Lady Horns took advantage of BR's miscues to salvage the win.
In the third match, a tournament semifinal clash, BR rolled to easy 25-18 and 25-17 victories.
"The only positive thing was (Hannah) Armenta passing," Coach Arnold Stonebrink said.
The senior outside hitter's play during the two days earned her a spot on the all-tournament team.
With BR's win over Payson in the semifinals, the Jackets advanced to the tournament finale where St. Johns swept the purple and gold.
Following the tournament, Stonebrink said he's never put the Yellow Jackets and Payson in the same pool before, but did so because "it was easier to keep other same-region teams from being in the same pools."
Although Stonebrink would have preferred the Lady Horns to emerge victorious each time against BR, he was satisfied with his team's play in the nail-biters.
"I was most pleased with how well the girls performed when the games were close," he said. "We were 5-1 in games decided by one point.
"The girls never gave up, even when down by three points, with 45 seconds in one game (vs. Blue Ridge) and by three points, with 30 seconds in another game. They ended up winning both."
Also, the coach was elated with the team's spirit after it was relegated, the second day, to the loser's bracket.
"We won a pair of three-game thrillers with both wins occurring after losing the first game of each match. That's a sign of a mature team that doesn't get rattled or down on itself."
Stonebrink believes the tournament can be a catalyst to performing well against BR and throughout the regular season.
"I hope the girls use this as a springboard to dominating play this year and a good run through regional play," he said. "They deserve it -- they work very hard, are very together as a team and are very coachable."
Payson next plays Blue Ridge, Sept 27 in Lakeside. The team returns to tournament action tomorrow, Saturday, in Flagstaff at the Coconino Invitational.