The finest season in the history of Payson High School volleyball wrapped up in fitting fashion on Oct. 25 with the Lady Longhorns pulling off the surprise of the season, upsetting the homestanding Flagstaff Eagles 3-0.
The Eagles, a Class 4A II school, expected to contend for the state championship, entered the match with a 13-3 record and having not lost a non-tournament game in almost seven weeks. As highly regarded as the Eagles were, they were no match for the fired up Lady Horns, losing three straight barnburners 25-23, 25-21 and 25-19.
Following the match, Flag coach Beth Haglin told reporters, “We weren’t on our game… we weren’t mentally ready.”
While that might have been true, the victory can also be attributed to a revved-up group of Lady Horns bent on becoming the finest group to ever don Payson High uniforms.
Not surprisingly, the team proved they are indeed the golden girls of PHS volleyball by shutting out a highly favored Eagles team, finishing 13-5 overall and co-champions of the East region.
The varsity record, coupled with the freshmen’s 14-1 mark and the 16-2 standard of the junior varsity, has definitely raised the bar in the PHS program.
Coach Arnold Stonebrink called the season, in which the three teams finished a combined 43-8, the finest in the seven years he’s been at the helm of the program.
It was also the best showing in the 24 years that this reporter has been covering PHS volleyball.
“We went in wanting this match so bad we could taste it,” Stonebrink said. “I told the girls how crucial this match was, our biggest of the year.”
The coach says that he usually passes on telling the girls how important a “W” is because some teenage athletes have a tendency to get overly excited, which results in nervousness and on-the-court errors.
“But not this year’s team,” he said. “They took it in with the desired effect of pumping them up and getting enthused.
“This team performs very well when they are enthused.”
Their excitement was evident from the onset of the first set, as the Lady Horns jumped ahead 13-7.
The Eagles, however, came roaring back to tie the game and eventually take the lead.
“We held strong, though,” Stonebrink said.
With Payson leading 24-23, the Lady Horns scored set point to win a two-point nail biter.
The second set, Stonebrink said, was another nip and tuck junkyard dogfight with neither team able to string together more than three points at a time.
The coach lauded the Eagles’ serve receiving as a factor in keeping the team in the game.
“That really put the pressure on our defense to come through and hold them,” Stonebrink said. “We nickeled and dimed our way to a 23-17 lead when we were kicked out of the building — literally.”
A fire alarm sounded that required officials to evacuate the gym, sending the hot and sweating players outside into the cold, crisp air of Flagstaff’s 7,000-foot elevation.
“Our girls bundled in blankets and coats next to each other,” said Stonebrink.
After fire officials checked the building, the two teams were allowed to reenter and finish the match.
The breath of fresh air must have bode the Eagle players well, because Flagstaff rallied with four straight points to close within 24-21. But a side out allowed Payson to score a point and win the second set by four.
“The back row was phenomenal with their digging and passing,” said Stonebrink. “That enabled use to run our offense, and Trinity (England), especially benefited netting six kills.”
But Flagstaff didn’t become the lauded team it is by folding up the tent and heading home.
Trailing 2-0, the Eagles “still had plenty of fight left in them,” said Stonebrink.
In the crucial third set, the teams traded side outs and points until a 17-17 tie.
At that point, Payson scored four straight points, to take a 21-17 cushion. Megan Wessel contributed to the rally with a three-point serving run.
The never-say-die Eagles closed to 21-19 before Katelyn Curtis came riding to the rescue much like Dudley Do-Right in Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Curtis scored three consecutive winners which propelled the Lady Horns to a set victory and a clean sweep of the match.
Following the win, the coached praised England for her hitting, highlighted by 16 kills in 35 attempts.
Also, she committed only three errors.
The coach also cited blocking at the net as a key to the win, with England scoring three block assists, Kelsey Waugh and Curtis tallying two each.
With the regular season at an end, the Lady Horns advance today, Oct. 29, to the regional tournament in Snowflake.
The results will seed the teams into the 3A state tournament set to begin Nov. 5 at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.