Payson High School baseball coach Scott Novack knows well what it will take for the Longhorns to remain among the 3A conference’s elite.
“We need to go 2-1 this week against some of the top teams at home,” he said.
The home stand tips off today, April 5, against Fountain Hills and continues tomorrow, April 6, vs. the visiting Show Low Cougars, coached by former SL three-sport star David Nikolaus.
The crucial week wraps up April 8 against a Blue Ridge Yellow Jacket team that on March 29 in Lakeside throttled the Horns 5-1.
All three teams the Horns clash with this week are candidates for post-season honors and have the potential to play deep into the state tournament, if not win the title outright.
In 3A power points, Blue Ridge is top ranked with an 8-0 non-tournament record.
The AIA does not use tournament game results in calculating power points.
The Jackets are 13-1 overall and have outscored their opponents by a 142-47 margin.
Fountain Hills, at 8-3, is No. 2 and Show Low is sitting at ninth with 6-2.
FH is 13-4 overall and Show Low is 10-3.
Payson is equally as formidable as the three, with a No. 4 ranking and 7-2 credentials (10-4 overall).
Hurler goes down
The Longhorns must prepare for the trio of rugged prep intruders without one of the team’s finest pitchers — senior right-hander Keaton Duran.
Duran was injured April 2 vs. Winslow in the Wolves Classic Invitational Tournament in Goodyear.
Novack is not sure of the severity of the injury or how long Duran will be sidelined.
“Right now it (the injury) is the ulna nerve or ligament strain — he needs an MRI,” said Novack. “He will not be able to throw for a while, but might try hitting.”
Team trainer Scott Nossek will evaluate and treat Duran this week.
Novack is calling the injury particularly tough to deal with because Duran “was back to the old Keaton,” referring to when he was the top pitcher on the Longhorn roster.
In the tournament game against Winslow, Duran started on the hill and retired the first two Bulldog hitters he faced.
“He looked very sharp, then got hurt throwing a pitch against the third batter,” said Novack. “He looked as sharp as he ever has.”
Novack says coaches and players are “hoping and praying the injury is not serious.”
If Duran can’t return to the mound, other pitchers on the roster — including Jake Sleeper, Zack Blazer, Westin Gibson or Wade Hunsaker — must step up to fill the void.
While pitching is the name of the game in high school baseball, hitting also plays a pivotal role, and the Horns have some accomplished batsmen in Kyle Randall, Chance Randall, Dylan Richardson, Juan Machado, Gibson and Sleeper.
Freshman Nick McMullen, who homered in a run-rule win over Wickenburg in the Wolves Classic, shows great potential at the plate.
All he appears to need to round into a force is more experience and at-bats.
Other highlights of the Horns’ appearance in the Wolves Classic include Duran’s walk off base hit that scored the winning run in PHS’s 9-8 win over Chino Valley, Sleeper’s outstanding pitching in a 9-8 win vs. Florence and in that same game, a pinch hit home run by Blazer.
In all, Payson finished 3-2 in the tournament, losing to Winslow and Dysart.
Against Winslow, a team the Horns whipped 13-10 on March 11, Novack “rested most of the starters, but we still did not play to our potential.”
The coach calls the tournament loss to Florence particularly gut wrenching, “because Horn batters either popped up or struck out due to poor approaches at the plate.”
Also, he added, plaguing the Horns’ cause were “some misplays on defense and not pitching to our potential.”
To win this week against the Falcons, Cougars and Yellow Jackets, the Horns must eliminate all those miscues, come up with solid pitching and continue to hit the ball as the line-up of sluggers had done much of the season.