With just two East region games remaining in the regular season, the Longhorn baseball team is gearing up for a run at the postseason.
But the all-important seed the Horns will take into the state tournament, which begins May 6 at the Surprise Baseball North Complex, is yet to be determined.
It’s almost a given the 3A East will send four teams to state — Blue Ridge, Show Low, Payson and Snowflake.
Round Valley (1-5), which on April 12 dropped a doubleheader to Payson 15-1 and 12-0, and Alchesay (0-6) are out of the running.
If the Longhorns win their final two East games, today, April 15 at Snowflake and a postponed contest vs. Blue Ridge (no makeup date as yet), PHS would finish 10-2 in the region and could take to state as high as the East’s second-place finish, depending on what the other East teams do the remainder of the season.
In Arizona Interscholastic Association power point rankings, the Horns are showing strong with a sixth-place ranking among the 28 3A teams.
From the East, only Blue Ridge is ranked higher, sitting in fourth.
The higher the seed Payson receives to the tournament, the better the team’s chances are for advancing because top-seeded teams play lower-seeded teams in the opening round.
For example, if the Longhorns receive a sixth seed, the team would play a No. 11 seed.
The second round of the state tournament will be played May 7 and the semifinal May 13. The state championship is set for 7 p.m. May 14 in the Surprise Baseball stadium which is the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers.
The success of the Longhorns at state is riding of the shoulders of a core of players who have paced the team since the season began on Feb. 24.
Among the pitchers, Jake Sleeper has been the team’s workhorse since Keaton Duran was sidelined with an elbow injury.
Sleeper struggled in the Longhorns’ 8-7 win over Show Low on April 6, giving up 13 hits and six earned runs.
Although Sleeper was misfiring early with a lack of control, he finished the game in workman-like fashion and was credited with the victory.
Also in the stable of hurlers is senior Wade Hunsaker who appears to have potential, but lacks game experience.
Coach Scott Novack can also call upon Zack Blazer, Westin Gibson and Dylan Richardson for pitching duties.
Gibson pitched a complete game in the Horns’ 7-5 loss earlier this week to St. Johns, giving up five earned runs, four walks and a hit batsmen. He also struck out six.
Offensively, the Horns have several standout hitters including Gibson, who is toying with the .500 batting average mark.
He also has good power as evidenced by his five home runs and a bundle of other extra base hits.
Among his home runs was a grand slam he slugged in the loss to St. Johns.
The Horn roster also features several other .300 plus hitters including Juan Machado, Edwin Estrada, Chance Randall, Kyle Randall and Sleeper.
Chance Randall has been batting in the cleanup slot.
Freshman Nick McMullen, who oozes with potential, has flirted with the coveted .300 mark all season. Once the Horns are on the base paths, both Machado and Gibson have shown the speed and moxie it takes to be threats to steal.
Defensively, the Horns have had their ups and downs, but in the win over Show Low the team turned in some gems including one in which Machado, playing outfield, scooped up a Cougar double, threw to Gibson at shortstop who relayed to the catcher, Estrada, who applied the tag to catch a hard sliding SL runner at the plate.
The play saved a run which was the exact margin the Horns won by.
Ryan Rislund also had a standout catch in the outfield that robbed a SL hitter of a base hit.
As good as the Horns have been this year, there are several other teams around the 3A conference who will prove to be huge obstacles in the Horns’ quest to earn the school’s second-ever state championship.
If the team can muster the will and ability to get past the likes of Estrella Foothills, Safford, Fountain Hills, Florence and the East powers, the Longhorns could next month be celebrating a 3A title just as the team of Bryan Zumbro, Hunter Walden, Marc Bennett and Cade Bradley did 12 years ago at Peoria Sports Complex where the Horns thumped Cactus Shadows 23-11 in the state title finale.
That 1999 team fell behind No. 1-ranked Cactus, which was 27-0 and on a 35-game winning streak, 8-2, in the bottom of the first but battled back from adversity to win the school’s first baseball crown.
Does the current team have the same type of guts, pluck and grit as their predecessor did on that fateful day?
Only time will tell.