Longhorn baseball players are currently battling what is probably the toughest competition a PHS team has faced in the history of the program.
The opposition includes three highly regarded, out-of-state high school teams — Rancho of Las Vegas, Westlake, Calif., and Mamaroneck, N.Y.
So how did PHS find itself participating in a tournament called “The Mesa Citrus Classic” against three schools some players might not have ever heard of?
Let’s let Payson High coach Scott Novack answer.
“Originally, the tournament was going to be out-of-state teams only, but the tournament had to be sanctioned by the AIA and National Federation of High Schools,” he said. “The City of Mesa needed an Arizona team to participate to get it sanctioned.
“Marc Beasley, City of Mesa sports coordinator, is a good friend of mine and he gave us the opportunity to participate.”
All three visiting teams are tradition-rich and among the finest in the country.
“I thought it would be good for us to face that kind of competition right before the state tournament,” Novack said. “Rumor has it Rancho has five or more pitchers topping 90 (mph) and has scouts that follow them around.”
The coach’s best hope in the prestigious tournament is for “our guys to play to their ability and get noticed.”
The round robin tipped off with two games yesterday, April 21, and continues with two games today.
At 1 p.m. tomorrow, April 23, the teams with the two best records will clash for the tournament championship.
The other two teams meet at 10 a.m.
All games are to be played a Mesa’s Red Mountain Sports Complex.
Mamaroneck has just begun its 2011 season, but is off to a 3-0 start in AA competition, Westlake is 11-5 in a California Division 1 prep league and Rancho is 19-2 in a “big school” 4A Nevada conference.
In New York prep circles, Mamaroneck — coached by Mike Chiapparelli — is considered a power that usually contends for division and state honors.
Last year, the team finished 18-5 overall and 13-1 in its league.
The previous two seasons the team was 23-4-2 and 30-2.
In league play from 2007 to 2010 the Tigers were 36-1.
Westlake High, a school located on the western edge of Los Angeles County, is off to its best start in seven seasons.
Under coach Zach Miller, who took over the program in 2007, WHS has posted consecutive seasons of 15-14, 12-16 and 14-15.
El Rancho might be the most formidable of the teams entered in the Classic as evidenced by a team batting average of .436 and a team ERA of a sizzling 2.87.
Individually, shortstop/pitcher Brandon Pletsch, the son of head coach Tom Pletsch, is hitting an amazing .500 in 22 games with four home runs and 13 extra base hits.
Eric Holdren is the ace on the pitching staff with a 6-1 record and a 2.00 ERA in 35 innings.
The Rams also have on their roster a big-time baserunner in senior outfielder Michael Cruz who has been successful on all 17 of his base stealing attempts. He’s also hitting .423 with nine doubles and three triples.
The Horn lineup
The Horns will counter the trio of visitors with a rapidly improving, but not deep pitching staff and a roster of hitters who are beginning to pound the ball with the best in the region.
Jake Sleeper, Zack Blazer, Edwin Estrada, Will Dougherty and Westin Gibson form the nucleus of the staff that was depleted early this month when senior Keaton Duran was sidelined by an elbow injury.
In a 16-0 win over Snowflake on April 15, Sleeper was at his pitching best, hurling all six innings allowing just two hits, walking one and striking out six.
Blazer pitched well in a 12-0 win over Round Valley, giving up seven hits, walking one and striking out three.
In the second game of the doubleheader, Estrada started and hurled three innings allowing just one earned run.
Dougherty relieved and shut out the Elks, striking out three and coughing up two hits.
On April 12, Gibson pitched a complete game in the Horns’ 7-5 loss to St. Johns, giving up five earned runs, four walks and striking out six.
Offensively, Chance Randall, Juan Machado, Kyle Randall, Nick McMullen, Gibson, Sleeper and Blazer lead Payson.
On defense, the team struggled in the season, but the “D” appears to be improving as evidenced by just one error in the win over Snowflake.
Following the Longhorns’ appearance in the Classic, the players will have about two weeks of practice to fine tune their game in preparation for the state tournament.
It begins May 6 in Surprise. The championship game is set for May 14.