A first-year head coach was at the helm of the Payson High School Longhorn baseball team when it kicked off the 2011 season Feb. 28 in Holbrook.
Scott Novack was officially hired May 24, 2010 following the resignation and retirement of longtime coach Jerry Daniels, who had lost his PHS teaching job in a reduction in forces by the district. Daniels was hired on as head coach in 2004, replacing Teddy Pettet, who had led the Longhorns to the 1999 3A state championship.
Daniels’ finest team might have been the 2008 squad that shared the East region championship with the Show Low Cougars.
The team advanced to the state tournament where it was eliminated by a gut wrenching 1-0 extra innings loss to Chino Valley.
In Novack’s debut vs. Holbrook, the coach led the Longhorns to a 13-5 win over a Roadrunner team that, he said, “hadn’t had a lot of practice.”
The lack of practice time could have been because some of the players were members of the Holbrook basketball team that on Feb. 26 won the 3A state championship.
While the Horns were able to more than double the score on the Roadrunners, Novack wasn’t entirely satisfied with the team’s performance at the plate.
“Offensively, we are not where we want to be,” he said.
He was most likely talking about the Horns’ nine strike outs, four of which were “looking” — a monumental no-no for any hitter.
There was one inning, however, that the Horns produced the type of offense Novack is searching for.
“In the 7th (inning), guys made great adjustments and had the at-bats we expect,” the coach said.
So what occurred in that frame that had the new coach all giddy?
It was a merry-go-round onslaught that would have made Murderer’s Row proud.
With the score tied 5-5, the rally began with Westin Gibson’s one-out single and continued with a double by Keaton Duran that scored Gibson.
Then, freshman Nick McMullen doubled off the outfield wall and Dylan Richardson tagged a ground rule double.
Edwin Estrada doubled, Jake Sleeper singled and Juan Machado homered.
With the bases now clear, Cale Novack, the coach’s son, got the merry-go-round going again with an infield single, and Gibson doubled in his second plate appearance of the inning.
Next up, Chance Randall rocketed what looked to be a sure home run over the left field fence.
“But the Holbrook fielder reached over and snatched it back for the third out,” said the coach.
But by the time that out was recorded, Payson had built a comfortable nine-run lead and Holbrook was on the ropes.
In the bottom of the seventh, Gibson — who in the third inning had replaced Keaton Duran on the mound — faced only four Runner hitters before ending the inning and the game.
In pitching four innings of relief, Gibson struck out three, walked two and gave up six hits — three of them the infield variety. In facing 17 hitters, he gave up just two earned runs and was credited with the victory.
While pitching paved the way to the victory, the new coach also points to the last inning rally as “what we are capable of doing consistently” and says another key to the “W” was “veterans not being rattled by a tie ball game in the 7th inning on the road.”
Duran, the senior starter, was not credited with the win, but did turn in some shining moments.
In the bottom of the second, with Payson clinging to a 2-0 lead, Holbrook loaded the bases and, with no outs, appeared well on the way to erasing the Horns’ cushion.
But Duran rose to the occasion to record the first out on a fielder’s choice at home, the second on a strike out and the third on a fly ball to center.
No harm, no foul — the Horns walked away from the inning still clinging to a two-run lead.
In the third, Duran struck out the side, but then was replaced by Gibson.
During his time on the mound, Duran struck out six, walked three and allowed four hits.
At the plate, Duran contributed an RBI double.
Next up for the Longhorns is a March 10 clash on PHS diamond against coach Art Griffith’s Winslow Bulldogs who are annual fixtures in the state tournament. Game time is 3:30 p.m.
The two teams met Feb. 24 in a pre-season scrimmage in Winslow, so they should be no strangers to one another.