Lady Longhorn volleyball coach Arnold Stonebrink traveled Sept. 10-11 to Surprise, wondering if the talent of the 4A and 5A “big school” teams participating in the White Tanks Invitational Tournament would overwhelm his PHS squad.
After watching the Lady Horns take fifth place overall, winning seven out of eight matches, Stonebrink departed the Valley convinced his team can hold their own against the metropolitan Phoenix squads.
“I was very pleased to see the girls not only play competitively against the big dogs, but in many instances, blow them away,” said the coach.
In fact, the team’s performance in the tournament reminded Stonebrink of a children’s story that teaches the value of optimism and hard work.
“I really felt we were the little 3A team that could,” he said.
If there was a single game in the two days that proved the Lady Horns are a force to reckon with it, was a showdown against 4A Arcadia in cross pool play.
Payson entered the match fresh off wins over Youngker (25-17 and 25-22) and South Mountain (25-10 and 25-9).
Even with the victories, Stonebrink knew his charges were in for a huge challenge against Arcadia.
“Their club team took second in the state last spring; a couple of years ago their high school team was third in state at 4A and their coach is fantastic,” he said. “They had three girls that were at least six feet tall and they had a terrific setter who ran a quick, efficient, powerful offense.”
In the first set, Arcadia was all the coach and the Payson players expected, hammering the Lady Horns 25-11.
But in the second set, after a strategy change, the Lady Horns found themselves playing on even terms with the Titans.
“Still Arcadia kept grinding away and we were on the brink (of losing), behind 24-19, said Stonebrink. “We scored a side out and then Katelyn Curtis nailed four consecutive aces to tie the set.”
From there, the game turned into a battle of wills as the two teams traded leads and took turns flailing off each others’ set points.
Eventually, Payson assumed a 29-28 lead and had two golden chances at set point because the game cap was 30 points.
“But it was not meant to be,” said Stonebrink. “An Arcadia kill and our serve receive error ended in an Arcadia 30-29 win.”
Although the powerful Titans edged the Lady Longhorns, the coach left the gym beaming with pride, “I couldn’t be prouder prouder of my team.
“They made adjustments and battled and battled and didn’t give an inch. They played their guts out.”
Arcadia went on to win the tournament.
The loss to the Titans dropped Payson into second place in the pool, but also earned the team a berth in the gold bracket where PHS would battle three other teams for fifth-place tournament honors.
Payson opened impressively, downing 5A Maryvale 25-20 and 25-10 behind nine kills from Trinity England and four aces and 10 service winners by Megan Wessel.
That propelled the Lady Horns into a battle for first in the gold bracket and fifth overall against Westview.
“We started out slowly and lost the first set 25-22,” said Stonebrink. “Westview was good and we may have overlooked them.”
Payson continued to struggle in the second set, especially making service errors that gift wrapped six points in the first set loss and five more in the second set.
“Fortunately our hitting was on,” Stonebrink said. “Cami Barnett’s four kills led the team.”
After trailing 19-17, PHS rallied to win 25-21 and force a deciding third and final set.
In it, clutch kills by Kelsey Waugh, Barnett and Curtis lifted the Lady Horns to a 15-9 victory.
“We won going away,” Stonebrink said. “Winning fifth place was sweet.”
Following the team’s return to Payson, the coach scoured tournament stats and proclaimed their hitting (.284) to be a strong point.
“Three starters, (Waugh, England and Curtis) had phenomenal hitting averages,” he said. “And backup Emma Randall came off the bench and performed well under pressure against Arcadia.”
The coach also lauded serving as “superb” — especially those dished out by Rachel Creighton and Curtis who combined for 43 aces.
The only facet of the game Stonebrink expressed concerns about was serve receiving which he called “a bit of a disappointment and the numbers show it.”
He did admit, however, the team was pitted against some strong servers during the two days.
“Sometimes we were burned on short serves and would not adjust by moving up,” he said. “And sometimes we just did not move our feet well”
If there was a serve receiver who was at the top of her game, it was Megan Wessel who the coach said, “was as steady and dependable as ever.”
The bottom line in the girls’ visit to Surprise is that it set the stage for the remainder of a season in which Payson will be going toe to toe against some of the school’s longtime rivals.
“The girls’ performance, especially against Arcadia, gave them a lot of confidence and they are eager to get on with the season and play the 3A big dogs like Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Fountain Hills.”
Next up for the Lady Horns is a Sept. 21 showdown against the Round Valley Elks in Eagar.