The best that can be said about the onset of the 2010 softball season, which begins Feb. 25 in a controlled scrimmage against Winslow, is that it will help erase some of the sting of last season when the Lady Longhorns failed to make the 16-team state tournament.
Rendering the state slight most painful is that when the players awoke on a midweek morning last spring, just before seedings were announced, Payson was ranked No. 15 in power points and seemed a lock to earn a state berth.
But when the Arizona Interscholastic Association released the official state brackets later that afternoon, the Lady Horns were not seeded into the state tournament, which infuriated coach Will Dunman.
At the time, he called it an injustice saying his girls were deserving of playing in the postseason.
Nonetheless, the tournament went on as scheduled, with longtime PHS rival Blue Ridge winning the state title taking a 7-3 victory over the Winslow Lady Bulldogs in the finale.
Winslow’s fine showing last spring, coupled with the fact the team might have lost only one player to graduation, means the Lady Horns could have their hooves full during Thursday’s scrimmage.
For the clash, however, no scores are to be kept — a mandate that’s often overlooked especially among parents and fans — and individual statistics are not included in team results. Also, power points are not awarded.
The intention behind the scrimmage is to give coaches one final opportunity to evaluate players, without worrying about wins and losses, before the season tips off.
Which is exactly what Dunman plans to do with a largely untested squad armed with mostly role players and only one battle-tested pitcher.
The hurler is junior Mary Hagen, a 2009 all-region second team member who has shouldered most of the pitching load the past two seasons.
This year, she faces a unique challenge in that the pitching rubber in high school has been moved from 40 feet to the collegiate distance of 43 feet.
Just how that will affect Hagen and other prep pitchers won’t be known until well into the season.
Some argue the farther distance will result in more hits and more runs because batters will have a longer time span to pick up pitches. Others, however say the new distance will benefit the pitchers pitchers, especially those with breaking offerings, because there will be more time and distance for the ball to pick up speed and break off — slide, curve drop, move right or left, up or down.
The change in pitching distances might not affect Hagen because she has been playing club ball in the Valley where the rubber is already located 43 feet from home plate.
Aside from Hagen’s return, among those letter winners set to buoy Lady Horn fortunes this season is infielder Rylee Halenar, also a second team All-East selection last season.
Third baseman Tiffany Gamboa is also expected to return after missing most of last season with a broken hand. Last year, Gamboa did see some pitching duties.
Multi-talented Kyle Sanders will give the Horns a player who can flourish in the outfield, the infield and catch if needed.
Also among the 12 other players Dunman has on varsity are Chrissie Heron, Kelsey Waugh, Ashley Jacquez, Rachel D’Addabo, Natalie Black, Kaitlin Wessel and freshman Taylor Petersen.
Most are combination infielders-outfielders, but Petersen can pitch if called upon.
“We are very impressed with the group of young ladies,” Dunman said. “They have responded to our practices and we believe they are ready.”
He also predicts the team could improve offensively, but to be successful must “get after it defensively.”
As for the upcoming season, the coach sees the East Region title chase as a dogfight with the defending state champion Yellow Jackets as the championship favorite.
“Snowflake and Show Low could also be in it as they usually are,” said Dunman.
On the varsity staff this year alongside Dunman are Kadi Tenney and Jennifer Plumb. Both are former Lady Longhorn softball stars. Junior varsity coaches include Morgan O’Haver, Marissa Murray and Bobbi Jo Haught. O’Haver might be a huge help to aspiring hurlers having been one of the Lady Longhorns finest pitchers only a few seasons ago.
“We have three coaches on both varsity and junior varsity; I’m excited about that,” said Dunman. “That’s a lot of eyes on the teams.”
Following the scrimmage against Winslow, which will be played at 4 p.m. at PHS, the regular season starts March 1 against the Holbrook Roadrunners on PHS softball diamond. Game time is 3:30 p.m.