A pair of Valley-area “big schools,” coupled with a small, rural hotbed of softball could be the teams to beat in the Fifth Annual Gracie Haught Classic tournament.
At least, that’s the opinion of longtime Lady Longhorn softball coach Will Dunman.
“Dobson and Buckeye will both be good, and Benson is a past champion,” he says.
Last spring, 5A Dobson and 4A Buckeye roared undefeated through two days of intensive competition to reach the championship finale. In it, Dobson won a 3-2 thriller in seven innings to claim the Mustangs’ first Classic title.
Benson, a 2A East region school has been a fixture in the Gracie Haught since its inception, winning all the marbles in 2007.
Although BHS has less than 400 students, it usually manages to give larger schools fits during the annual Classic.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Benson without mentioning the tremendous show of support coach Shad Housley and his players have given over the years for the Gracie Haught Memorial Children’s Fund.
The past two seasons, the team has donated in excess of $1,000 each year — money earned by the players in various fund-raising efforts. As a team, the Bobcats could again be a force in the Classic, entering with an 8-2 record that includes some very impressive wins over large schools. Benson has beaten Round Valley, 6-3; River Valley, 7-0; Blue Ridge, 4-3; Goldwater, 8-4; and Santa Cruz, 9-4.
The Bobcats are led offensively by Stacie Ramirez (.583), Kady East (.667), Shauna Judd (.348), and Kayla Haro (.545), a GLH all-tournament selection last spring as a sophomore.
As for pitching, the Bobcats have a Brandon Webb-like gem in Haro, who has hurled a team-high 35.2 innings with a 3.73 ERA.
With her on the mound, the Cats will be in contention during any game they play, regardless of the foe.
Buckeye arrives in Payson sporting a 7-3 record and led by hurler Melissa Avila, also an all-tournament selection in 2009.
This year, Avila has thrown 32 innings with a 5.25 ERA and has shown good control, walking only 10, while striking out 23.
Offensively, Lauren Barnes paces the Hawks with her .441 average that includes three triples.
Samantha Soto is hitting .407 and Meagan Nehrgang carries a respectable .345 average.
Dobson enters the tournament armed with a 5-4 mark and a reputation as a pretty fair country hitting club.
In a 10-0 victory over Scottsdale Coronado, Dobson pounded out 10 hits, and in a 7-2 triumph against Mesa, the ’Stangs had eight hits.
Mustang hitters landed seven base hits in a 14-1 thumping of Tempe McClintock.
Also, Dobson will certainly not be awed by the Classic tournament pressure, having just wrapped up play in the Dobson-Marcos de Niza tournament contested in Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson.
Pitching crucial for PHS
If the Lady Horns are to contend for their first-ever Classic tournament championship, the team must find solid pitching over the course of the six or seven games it will play in the short span of two days.
Mary Hagen, a second team all-region selection last season, is the team’s mound ace, and has proved over the course of her career to have the stamina to pitch inning after inning. She also begins the tournament a bit wiser and well conditioned after having competed in club ball during the off season.
Hagen turned in an impressive relief performance last week in Payson’s 9-8, seven-inning win over Chino Valley.
In six innings on the hill, she struck out seven while being credited with the come-from-behind victory.
As good as Hagen is, however, she might need spot relief and rest.
If she does, Dunman has called up two junior varsity pitchers, Katelyn Curtis and Megan Wessel, for fireman’s help.
As with all underclassmen, it remains to be seen how young varsity newcomers react to the pressures of varsity tournament play.
Along with good pitching, the Lady Horns will need stellar and timely hitting to be a Classic title contender.
In early season play, freshman catcher Taylor Petersen has shown the long ball talent, slugging three home runs in the triumph over Chino Valley.
Also in Payson’s arsenal, Katelyn Wessel has turned in some fine outings, going three-for-three in a season-opening 12-2 win at Holbrook.
Left-handed slap hitter Rylee Halenar is an infield defense’s worst nightmare with her slow rolling ground balls and low line drives that can catch opponents off guard.
She has also shown some power, blasting a triple against Holbrook.
Cami Barnett and Kelsey Waugh are other hitters expected to shoulder the offensive load during the tournament.