A team that many fans and boosters tout as the best in the history of Payson High School volleyball is state tournament bound clutching an impressive 13-5 record, an East regular season championship, a region tournament title and a golden opportunity to win the school’s first state crown.
The Lady Horns began pursuit of the elusive 3A trophy at noon Nov. 5 at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley against Wickenburg.
Payson enters the post season with a lofty No. 6 seed while Wickenburg, which is 11-6 overall, has a No. 11 seed.
Payson nailed down the sixth-seed, believed to be the best in Lady Longhorn court history, on Oct. 29 winning the East tournament championship.
Playing at Snowflake, the Lady Horns received a bye in the first round by virtue of the team’s regular season championship tie with Blue Ridge and Snowflake and the resulting higher standing in the power point rankings.
In the second round of the East shoot-out, the Lady Horns were pushed to the brink by a surprisingly tough Show Low team, but survived 3-1.
That win propelled PHS into the championship showdown against a very good Blue Ridge (13-4) squad.
Although the Yellow Jackets had given the Lady Horns fits all season long, this time around, Payson was the better of the rivals, winning 3-0.
“The girls were excited and crying and everything else girls do when they are extremely excited,” said coach Arnold Stonebrink. “They hugged, yelled and jumped up and down.”
The girls later posed for a picture with the championship bracket and began whooping it up as they were presented the championship plaque.
“It was quite exciting,” said Stonebrink.
With the victory, the laurels flowed in for Stonebrink who was voted the East’s Coach of the Year.
Stonebrink deflected all praise directed his way saying he received the award, “Thanks to my horses, who were solid all year long and thanks to not having a single weak starter.”
Blue Ridge’s Laina Boniolo was named the region’s most valuable player.
In the championship skirmish vs. BR, Payson won the first set 25-20 and the second by a 25-18 margin.
The team insured itself of the sweep with a dynamic 25-23 “W” in the third set.
Against a scrappy Show Low squad in the semifinals, PHS opened with a 25-21 victory, but then fell 25-20 in the second set to the fired up Cougars, who surprised almost everyone by defeating a favored Round Valley team in the tournament’s first round.
In the third set, Payson won 25-16, but recorded only seven kills.
“It was a huge anomaly,” said Stonebrink. “The main culprit for the Cougars was serving — they made errors on seven of their serves.”
In the final set, Payson led 24-21 and had match point before Show Low scored two straight points to put the outcome in question.
“But a great pass allowed setter Rachel Creighton to set a perfect ball to Trinity England,” Stonebrink said. “And Trinity knows what to do with those — she smashed a kill straight down to end the set at 25-23 and enable us to advance.”
In the match, England and Cami Barnett, both outside hitters, led the team in kills with 17 and 15.
Middle hitter Kayla Woolwine added eight kills and hit .413 — a mark the coach calls “tremendous, she came up big.”
Megan Wessel was also on top of her game against the green and gold, pounding four aces and 13 service winners to lead all players. Jordyn Fruth, Cami Barnett and Creighton each had nine service winners.
Stonebrink also praised the back row of Rachel DiFilice, Rylee Halenar, Megan Wessel and England for their “superb game of passing and serve receiving.”
Creighton finished with 14 digs and Megan Wessel and England had 10 apiece.
With the win in the record books, the team advanced to the finale against the Yellow Jackets with the coach knowing, “We’d need a better performance to have any chance of winning — more enthusiasm was needed. “
He also worried over the health of Kelsey Waugh, whose ankle sprain might have slowed her.
“Although she played two of the four sets against Show Low, she seemed to hold back a tad,” Stonebrink said. “I watched her in warm-ups before I made a decision whether to start her or not.”
After watching Waugh consistently pound the ball in pre-game, the coach “turned around and penciled her into the starting lineup.”
After allowing Blue Ridge to jump out to a 4-2 lead in the first set, four straight service winners from Katelyn Curtis and another four-point run from Megan Wessel gave the Lady Horns a lead they would not relinquish.
Curtis continued her heroics in the second set, opening with an eight-point serving run and two aces to propel PHS out to an early lead.
“It was especially impressive because Blue Ridge’s Laina Boniolo, their big, dominant middle hitter, was in the front row,” said Stonebrink.
Following Curtis’ scoring surge, Megan Wessel stepped up to go on a five-point serving scurry to give the Horns a 20-10 lead.
From there, PHS coasted to the seven-point win.
The 2-0 lead, however, was not a comfortable one, considering BR is one of the finest teams in the state.
“I reminded the girls Blue Ridge would not quietly go away, that they would still fight and claw,” Stonebrink said. “And they did, the Yellow Jackets brought their A game.”
The set turned into the mother of all hardwood wars as the rivals exchanged leads before the Lady Horns finally opened a 24-21 cushion.
Blue Ridge, however, pulled to within 24-23 before a perfect pass and set led to Barnett’s resounding hit into a Blue Ridge block. The ball deflected off the block and onto the floor, scoring Payson’s winning point.
“Cami came up big, popping 10 kills on .226 hitting,” Stonebrink said.