A nail-biting drama that kept hyped-up boosters teetering on the edge of their seats unfolded in Wilson Dome where the Lady Longhorns met the Flagstaff Eagles in the championship finale of the Payson Invitational volleyball tournament.
When the excitement finally died down Sept. 6, the Lady Horns were wildly celebrating a 2-0 win over the Eagles and a gold medal finish in the 18-team shootout.
In the first game against Flagstaff, Payson built an 8-2 lead thanks to three aces from Desi Burris and one from Reghan Flake.
But the Eagles, who play in the 4A II Grand Canyon Region, rallied back to tie the game. The hard-fought showdown continued until Payson secured a 22-21 lead and a side out.
Flake then tallied an ace which, coupled with two more tough serves, scored the final two points the Lady Horns needed for the 25-21 win.
The second game was also a barnburner but not as close on the scoreboard.
"We jumped to a 20-16 lead and after a side out, three service winners -- including two aces by Jenna Robertson -- brought us one point from victory," coach Arnold Stonebrink said. "The Eagles were able to side out, but with the score 24-17, Michelle's (Daniels) resounding kill secured the championship."
The win over the Eagles should be considered an upset of sorts mostly because Flagstaff was a 4A state tournament qualifier last year and one of the favorites to win the Payson Invitational.
For the opening day of play on Sept. 5, the Eagles were aligned in the same pool, black, as the Lady Horns. The two rivals met at midday with both still in contention for the pool title.
"I figured Flagstaff was the team to beat in our pool and the Eagles proved me right as they stomped us in the first game, 21-14," Stonebrink said.
But in the second clash, Robertson's three kills and Burris' four service winners lifted Payson to a 13-8 win.
"That was huge, it kept us from dropping to a 4-4 record," Stonebrink said.
Pool play opened with the Lady Horns pitted against a very tough 1A Joseph City team. Payson needed three straight service winners from Cydney Figueroa to win the first game 21-19. With the Lady Horns leading 9-8 in the second, and two minutes remaining on the game clock, Laughlin Potvin circled the wagons.
"She finished the game with six straight service winners, five of which were aces," Stonebrink said. In the second match, Payson rolled 21-9 over Chinle thanks to Rose Hardt's four kills in seven attempts.
n the second game of the match, with many reserves on the floor, Chinle edged Payson 15-14 to drop the Lady Horns to 3-1.
Next on PHS's pool agenda was a Sedona team that earlier in the week had beaten the Lady Horns 3-1.
This time around, the Lady Horns won the first game, 21-14, but dropped the second, 15-14.
After beating Flagstaff in pool play, the Lady Horns took a pair of gutsy wins over a very good Wickenburg team. In the first, Payson won 21-17 behind Bailey Randall's five kills and Figueroa's three.
Payson won the second, 15-4, with Flake serving five straight winners to start the game.
With a 7-3 record, the Lady Horns won the black pool championship.
Evening cross-pool action
Next up was cross-pool play, which proved to be doubly tough for PHS.
Against 3A East Region rival Blue Ridge, Payson lost the first game, 21-19, but rebounded to win the second, 10-8.
With the split, the Lady Horns met a Safford team that had compiled the tournament's best pool record, 9-1.
"They proved their success was no fluke as they beat us, 21-18 and 13-7," Stonebrink said. "The losses left us with a No. 3 seed going into (championship) bracket play the next day."
Blue Ridge took the second seed and Safford the top seed.
In bracket play, the Lady Horns beat Mingus, 25-15 in the first game, but lost the second, 24-23.
In the rubber game, Payson survived, 11-5.
The win lifted the Lady Horns into a quarterfinal match against Blue Ridge, which PHS won, 25-17 and 25-19.
"The girls brought their A-game again and won handily," Stonebrink said. "Our hitting game overpowered the Yellow Jackets."
Robertson finished with 11 kills in 21 attempts and Trinity England had four kills in 11 tries with one error.
In the semifinals against Safford, Payson stumbled in the first game, losing a lopsided 25-8 decision. The Lady Horns rebounded to win the second clash, 25-17.
In the all-important third and final game, Payson emerged victorious, 11-9.
"A hitting error by Safford gave us the exciting win and an appearance in the championship," Stonebrink said.
In the win, Bailey Randall had five kills and Robertson contributed three aces, which included two critical scores in the last game.
After winning the tournament title, Stonebrink reflected on the achievement saying, going in, our goal was to improve on last year's third-place finish, which had been our best showing since I started coaching here.
"In other words, our goal was to make the championship."
With that goal in the record books, the Lady Horns will now set their sights on an East Region championship and the school's first ever 3A volleyball state title.
Next up in pursuit of those goals is a Sept. 10 visit to Fountain Hills. Game times are 4:30 (frosh), 5:30 (jayvee) and 6:30 p.m. (varsity).