All-important East baseball action returns April 1 when the Longhorns travel to Lakeside to take on a Blue Ridge Yellow Jacket team battling PHS for the region title.
"According to the stats, Blue Ridge looks like the team to beat," coach Jerry Daniels said.
The results of that game and seven other upcoming East clashes will determine the region champion and seeds into the state tournament that begins May 2.
Prior to the jaunt East to the White Mountains, the Horns take a brief respite from region warfare to play North region members Holbrook (March 20) and Winslow (March 27) and South kingpin Globe (March 29).
The Horns stamped themselves a regional title threat by opening the East campaign 2-0 with wins over Show Low and Round Valley.
Payson nipped the homestanding Cougars 8-5, March 11 in nine innings. After taking a brief spring break, PHS returned to region action March 18 in Eagar-Springerville with a 4-1 victory over Round Valley.
In the victory, Hunter Haynes turned in the finest pitching performance of his prep career allowing just four hits and one earned run while striking out six.
Haynes was credited with the complete game victory.
An important cog in the Horns' arsenal when East play begins will be a freshman standout who has long been a star on the local Little League scene.
Weston Gibson leads the Horns in hitting with a .523 average that includes a dramatic game winning home run in the bottom of the seventh against Camp Verde.
Former Payson High School coach and teacher Ted Pettet, watching from the dug out, quipped, "he doesn't play like a freshman."
Further evidence Gibson is playing more like a veteran than an untested rookie turned up in the Horns' extra inning victory over Show Low. Gibson led the PHS offense pounding out three hits, including a double, in five trips to the plate.
In the win over Round Valley, he had a double in four appearances.
Ridge Halenar was also effective against Show Low and Round Valley. Against the Cougars, he finished three-for-five with two doubles, five RBIs and a run scored.
In the win over RV he was two-for-four.
Halenar's heroics come as no surprise to Longhorn fans who last fall watched him quarterback the football team to the state quarterfinals.
Halenar has been the starting catcher since he was a freshman, but also can pitch if called upon by coach Jerry Daniels.
Like Gibson, he has been a fixture on the local baseball scene since he was in elementary school. On the hill for PHS, Anthony Pearce and Haynes have shown potential.
Against Show Low, Pearce got the start and was credited with the victory, but it was Haynes who pitched the majority of the game.
In six innings, he struck out five, walked one and gave up six hits.
Haynes is also adept at the plate as evidenced by his two-for-four performance against Show Low. Other players the coach can call upon for offensive production include Nick Abraham, Ever Figueroa and Sean Daugherty.
Defensively, the Horns need to turn up the intensity after committing seven errors in the win over Show Low.
Leaders in the field include Tyler Savage, Abraham, Dougherty and Pearce. Dougherty and Pearce.