The last time Payson High School won a state baseball championship the team flourished under the leadership of Bryan Zumbro, Cade Bradley and Hunter Walden.
Can the current team led by Ridge Halenar, Weston Gibson and Hunter Haynes repeat the championship accomplishments of the 1999 squad?
The answer to that query begins to unfold at 4 p.m. today on Field No. 6 at Surprise Baseball Complex where the Longhorns play a first round game against Chinle.
The Horns enter the game as a No. 7 seed against the 10th seeded Wildcats who play in the relatively weak North Region where baseball takes a distant backseat to every reservation fan’s favorite sport — basketball.
During the regular season, the Wildcats posted a 14-9 record, 5-5 in the North and finished fourth in the final region standings.
One of the blemishes on Chinle’s record is a 35-0 loss to Winslow who enters the state tournament top seeded.
For the Wildcats, Ronald Shorty is hitting a team-leading .462, Garvin Hardy has slugged three home runs and Colin Nez sports a .782 slugging average with 20 stolen bases.
Nez is also Chinle’s mound ace with a region-high seven wins, a 1.96 ERA and 78 strikeouts.
For Payson to emerge victorious and advance to the second round, Longhorn hitters, led by Ridge Halenar, must find a way to get to Nez, whether it is with base hits, walks or errors by the Wildcat defense.
Halenar, the acknowledged team leader as he was on the Longhorns state championship football team, approaches the final postseason of his four-year varsity career as the East’s leading hitter with a .644 batting average that includes four home runs, four triples and 15 doubles.
Halenar has played in all 28 games this season, as have Weston Gibson and Tyler Savage.
Gibson, a sophomore infielder, provides much of the power in the Horn lineup with nine home runs, which is second in the East only to Show Low’s Clay Hathaway (15).
Gibson also has six triples, 10 doubles, 43 RBIs and is hitting .490. On the base paths he is always a threat to steal having swiped 11 bases in 11 attempts.
His power, speed, defensive prowess and knowledge of the game render him one of the most complete ballplayers to ever don a Longhorn uniform.
While Gibson and Halenar are the offensive leaders, the PHS lineup also features several other accomplished sluggers. Ryan Williams is hitting .400, Haynes .397, Devin England .354 and Savage .321.
If the Horns have an offensive weakness, it is strikeouts. Horn hitters have K’d 136 times this season with seven players in double digits.
The one-two combo of Haynes and Sean Dougherty leads Payson’s mound corps, which is seven pitchers deep.
Although Haynes is the acknowledge ace of the staff, coach Jerry Daniels will start Dougherty against Chinle in an apparent effort to save Haynes for a possible second-round game tomorrow against the winner of a first-round clash pitting No. 2 Chino Valley against No. 15 Snowflake.
“Sean is a very good pitcher, he beat Chino Valley earlier this season,” Daniels said.
Dougherty has a decent fastball, a changeup and an off-speed curve that can be tough on opposing batters.
This season he’s compiled a 4-3 record with one save and three complete games. His 2.37 ERA is second only to Haynes, whose mark is 2.29.
In the region, Haynes’ ERA is ranked second and Dougherty is third.
If Daniels is forced to dig deeper into his pitching rotation, he can tap Dakota Marshall (3.89) or Keaton Duran (3.97).
A win over Chinle would send Payson into the second round with its front-line pitcher, Haynes, rested and ready to go.
He leads the region in wins with six and strikeouts with 79.
Most importantly, he usually has good control, a must in state tournament play, having walked only 15 in 55 innings.
Others at state
In other state tournament opening round games involving East teams, No. 6 Show Low plays No. 14 Monument Valley and No. 4 Blue Ridge, the region champion, plays No. 13 Coolidge.
Winslow, which is on a 15-game winning streak, took the top seed, accumulating the most power points of any 3A team. Wily veteran coach Art Griffith, who in the mid-1960s starred for Winslow, leads a Bulldog team that might be one of the school’s finest ever.
Although Chino Valley enters state with a lofty 25-2 record, a two-seed and clutching the West Region championship, questions abound about the team’s strength of schedule.
In the Cougar’s two toughest games this season, CV lost 6-4 to Winslow and 5-4 to Payson.
Others in the state field expected to contend for the title are No. 3 Globe and No. 5 Fountain Hills.
The final four will be played May 15 and the championship finale at 7 p.m., May 16.
All games are at Surprise Baseball Complex located at 15850 N. Bullard Ave. in Surprise.
The complex is the spring training home of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals.