When we last saw the Longhorn baseball team, it was the spring of 2009 and PHS had just been eliminated from the 3A state tournament by a second-round 11-6 loss to the Chino Valley Cougars.
The defeat was a huge disappointment for the players, especially to the seven seniors — Lucas Barr, Gage Conway, Devin England, Ridge Halenar, Hunter Haynes, Tyler Savage and Ryan Williams — who realized they had donned a Longhorn uniform for the final time in their sports career.
Today, about nine months following that gut-wrenching loss, a new breed of Horns are preparing for another season and a shot at winning the school’s second state championship. PHS’s only other title came in 1999.
Many of those prepping today for 2110 were members of last season’s team and are hardened and seasoned by the rugged run through the East campaign and into the state playoffs.
Returning letter-winners include Sean Dougherty, Keaton Duran, Edwin Estrada, Ever Figuroa, Weston Gibson, Dakota Marshall and Jake Sleeper.
That seven give coach Jerry Daniels a solid nucleus on which to build the new team.
The coach says the group is talented, well rounded and seemingly eager to prove themselves on both the regional and state levels.
The veterans should have plenty of help from aspiring varsity hopefuls up from the younger ranks, including Trae Dunman, Juan Machado, Cale Novak and Kyle Randall.
Also in the varsity fold are newcomers Justin Powers and Chance Randall.
Most intriguing about the mixed group is that four starters return to the infield, which should result in a solid defense.
Dougherty is back at third base, Weston Gibson will man the shortstop slot and Ever Figueroa continues at second base. Dakota Marshall, when not pitching, will use his height and athletic ability to handle first baseman chores.
Duran can also play first base, and Estrada will take over the catching chores so ably handled the past five seasons by Halenar.
“The defense should be strong,” Daniels said.
The outfield is somewhat suspect, but the coach expects Dunman, Machado, Novak and Chance Randall to step up to the challenge of playing varsity.
“They should help us,” he said.
Offensively, the Horns have four of the hottest bats in the East to carry them in Gibson, Figueroa, Marshall and Estrada.
“They will be counted on to carry the hitting load,” said Daniels.
If Gibson can duplicate, or improve upon his feats of last season, the Horns have a genuine gem in their lineup.
In 2009, he hit .504 with 11 doubles, six triples and 10 home runs. He also stole 11 bases in 11 attempts.
Most exciting about Gibson is he genuinely enjoys the game and has said he would like to play at the next level.
With another solid season, he could be in the running for the region’s player of the year.
Figueroa (.375), Marshall (.317) and Estrada (.327) also had banner years last season and are looking for improvement.
As valuable as hitting is to team success, most prep coaches are quick to admit it is pitching that carries teams through rough times, especially in tournaments.
This season, Daniels has a seasoned mound crew to call upon in Dougherty, Duran, Sleeper and Marshall.
Zack Blazer and Chance Randall could also see hurling time, especially in tournaments.
Most lethal among the mound staff could be Dougherty, who last season compiled a 2.32 ERA and a 5-3 record with one save.
He’s not overpowering, but his offerings are fast and crafty enough to keep most hitters off balance.
In last year’s state tournament, Dougherty hurled the Longhorns to a first-round 15-6 victory over the Chinle Wildcats.
Although he wasn’t getting the normal strike calls from the umpire, he settled down after a shaky start to go the distance, giving up 10 hits and two earned runs.
Also last season, Sleeper finished with a 3.82 ERA and Duran complied a 3.82 mark.
“We have three of our top four pitchers returning,” Daniels said.
Out and about
The rare, but really good news in preseason training, is the players have been able to scrimmage, condition and train outdoors.
“We were able to get on the field for the first week for the first time in eight years,” said Daniels. “We usually start in the old gym because of rain but this year in the first week we were able to get a good look at the boys.”
With the season set to tip off next week, Daniels if focusing on the all-important East games calling four long time rivals the teams to beat.
“Blue Ridge will have to be considered the favorite but Show Low, Round Valley and Snowflake will be competitive,” he said.
The key to success, he added, is “we have to hope everyone stays healthy, we will field a good team, but we are thin.”