The Lady Longhorns are advancing to the 3A state softball tournament thanks to a 13-10 East regional tournament victory over the Round Valley Elks.
Payson qualifies as the No. 15 seed overall, No. 3 from the East Region, and will open the postseason at 8:15 p.m., Friday, May 7 at Rose Mofford field in Phoenix against No. 2 Estrella Foothills.
In earning the region’s bronze medal seed to state, the Lady Horns opened the East tournament April 27 with a 6-5 victory over the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets. In the second round on April 29, PHS was steamrolled 16-6 by East regular season champion Show Low.
The defeat relegated Payson into the May 1 battle for third place against Round Valley.
The crucial showdown turned into a slugfest with the two teams combining for 29 hits — 14 by Payson and 15 from Round Valley.
Slugging honors for Payson were garnered by freshman Taylor Petersen who punched two home runs — one of which was a grand slam and the other a three-run blast.
For the day, Petersen finished 2-for-5 with eight RBIs. The two round-trip tickets raised her season total to 12, which is a school record.
In addition to riding Petersen’s slugging to the win, the Lady Horns received solid support from their short game — steal, slap, drag, squeeze, hit-and-run or run-and-hit.
Coach Will Dunman and assistant Kadi Tenney agree the short game is an aggressive way for the team to “manufacture runs” and “make things happen.”
That style of play was never better than it was during a sixth inning uprising in which the Lady Horns erased a 10-8 deficit by scoring five runs.
The rally began with Rylee Halenar and Chrissy Heron drawing walks. Kaitlin Wessel then bunted safely to load up the bases. Halenar scored on a passed ball before Petersen hit her second home run of the game to empty the bases.
“We were teasing Taylor that if Rylee hadn’t scored (on the passed ball) she would have had two grand slams,” said Tenney.
The assistant coach also lauded Heron for her contributions to the short game pointing out she finished 3-for-4 at the plate, was on base four of five times at bat and scored three runs.
In the seventh and final inning with PHS leading by three, starting pitcher Mary Hagen, who struck out eight and walked two, shut down the Lady Elks to preserve the victory and pick up the “W.”
The win over RV was Payson’s third in the past month. On April 17, Payson whipped the Lady Elks 5-2 and three days later won 15-9.
Tenney calls the East tournament win over the Eagar school “a total team victory” with the entire lineup contributing.
“Our short game gets the runners on (base), then we move them around and get some hits,” she said.
Defensively, however, the Lady Horns left something to be desired committing six errors.
Individually in the tournament, freshman Kaitlin Wessel slugged a grand slam against Show Low, which was also the first of her season and varsity career.
Kelsey Waugh unleashed a double against Round Valley and a triple vs. Blue Ridge.
If the Lady Horns had not won the battle for the region’s third-place seed, they might not have gone to state.
That’s because a loss to RV would have meant Payson would have to qualify as one of four at-large teams chosen on power points.
Since the Lady Horns are ranked 15th in 3A power points their selection via that method would have been iffy at best.
Also representing the East Region at state will be No. 6 Show Low, No. 11 Snowflake, and No. 13 Round Valley.
The Elks advanced as one of the at-large teams.
Oddly enough, Show Low and Snowflake — two longtime archrival schools located only 15 miles apart — meet in the first round after battling one another all season long for region honors