Pursuit of the East region tournament championship and an advantageous seed into the 3A state tournament begins today for the Payson Longhorns baseball team.
It tips off at 4 p.m. on PHS diamond against the Round Valley Elks. Should the Horns be victorious, the team would advance to the tournament’s second round to be played April 28 in Eagar.
The championship game will be played April 30, also in Eagar.
The Elks and Horns are no strangers to one another, having met twice in the regular season.
On April 23 in Eagar, the Horns swept a double-header winning 12-0 and 15-1.
Those two lopsided results seem to indicate the Horns, if they play up to their potential, will be a lock to knock off the Elks and advance to the quarterfinal round.
Payson, however, is on a five-game losing streak and trying desperately to right its listing ship.
A plus for the Horns, however, is the teams they have lost to during the befuddling streak are all top-notch, highly regarded squads.
On April 20 in Fountain Hills, the Horns fell 16-9 to a very good Falcons team (15-4) that is sitting in second place in the state power point rankings.
Following the loss, the team traveled to the Valley to play in the Mesa Citrus Classic Tournament against schools from California, New York and Las Vegas.
Payson opened the tournament falling 9-2 to Mamaroneck, N.Y. and in the second round lost 12-2 to Rancho of Las Vegas.
In the final two games of the fray, the Horns fell 4-3 and 11-1 to Westlake High School, Calif.
About the streak, in which the Horns played five games in three days, coach Scott Novack deadpanned, “It’s been a busy week.”
Then, however, he reflected on the tough tournament competition saying, “Hopefully it was good for our guys to see this type of baseball.
“There were some great high school teams who did things correctly and played hard and serious for all seven innings.”
The coach continued to praise the Citrus opponents saying, “All three had some talented athletes, great coaching staffs and came to play.”
Novack then hedged a bit to predict, “with a few adjustments, we could probably be as good as some of these teams, but there are a couple of things we need to get better at.”
Among the Payson highlights were freshman Nate McMullen’s triple, a double by Dylan Richardson and a single by Cale Novack that produced the Horns’ only two runs in the loss to Rancho.
“Our offense sputtered against a very good high school pitcher,” said coach Novack. “No one in our line-up had more than one hit or was on base more than once.”
In the tournament opener against Mamaroneck, freshman Miguel Mendoza relieved starter Zack Blazer, who had given up five runs in the first, and “pretty much shut them down the rest of the way, but the damage was done,” said Novack.
Offensively, the Horns were their own worst enemies, striking out nine times.
In the 4-3 loss to Westlake, both sides were shaken when Jake Sleeper and Zack Blazer collided trying to flag down a bloop single.
“The collision was serious enough to send Blazer to the hospital and end the game,” said Novack. “Blazer was shaken up, but no serious injuries.”
In the second game 11-1 loss to Westlake, Novack started most of his reserves, including a few junior varsity players
“They kicked our butts,” said Novack. “It was not a fun game to watch.”
Payson’s young lineup could muster only five hits, but struck out just seven times, “against a tough Westlake pitcher, who was in the high 80s and had good command,” said Novack.
For Payson, seldom-used Gunner Goodman came on in relief and pitched well.
“They had trouble with Gunner’s version of a fastball,” said Novack. “It moves like a breaking ball and is not very fast.”
Sleeper, the starter in the game, struggled with his control, giving up six walks and hitting a batsman in one inning. In the frame, Westlake salted the game away, scoring eight runs on three hits.