Payson fans and boosters are gearing up for one of the highlights of the spring sports season.
It’s the 7th Annual Gracie Lee Haught Classic high school fast pitch tournament to be held March 18 and 19 at Rumsey Park and on the high school field.
The field of 16 teams represents schools of all size classifications from around Arizona including the Winslow Bulldogs, who won the 2010 Gracie Haught title on the way to the 3A state championships.
Also playing will be Joseph City, a team that won the Class 1A state championship last season.
A possible matchup involving Joe City, a tiny school of less than 200 students, and Mesa Dobson, a 5A giant with more than 2,000 pupils, would be a David vs. Goliath showdown that would pique the interest of prep sports fans around the state.
Mogollon, a 2A school, is also participating and is aligned in the same pool with Buckeye and Flagstaff, both much larger 4A schools.
Those types of matchups are what make the Classic one of the most unique tournaments in the state.
Because players are pitted against opponents they would never see during the course of the regular season or in post-season tournaments, they have the opportunity to see how they fare against those unknown counterparts.
When so called “small schools” take the field against “big school” opponents, a form of bragging rights are on the line.
The players from smaller schools want to prove they belong with the big girls and those from larger schools surely don’t want to be shown up by say, a Joseph City or Mogollon.
Wow, these games are fun.
For the opening day of the fray, March 18, Tournament Director Charlene Brown has divided teams into four pools.
Pool A is comprised of Joseph City, Blue Ridge, Santa Cruz and Bradshaw Mountain. In Pool B are Payson, Flagstaff, Buckeye and Mogollon.
Last year, Tucson Amphitheater was in the pool, but decided not to return this season following a change in coaches.
Benson, Snowflake, Estrella Foothills and Holbrook are aligned in Pool C. In Pool D are Camp Verde, Show Low, Dobson and Winslow.
On the first day, the teams will play round robins in each pool. Which means, each school will have three games putting a premium on pitching.
Lady Longhorns games are slated for 10 a.m. vs. Mogollon at Rumsey I, 1 p.m. vs. Buckeye at Rumsey II, and 4 p.m. vs. Flagstaff at Rumsey III.
The following day, March 19, the teams will be seeded into one of two eight-team consolation and championship brackets based on their records in pool play.
Bracket A will be comprised of the teams that finished either first or second in their respective pools.
Bracket B will house the schools that finished third or fourth in pool play.
The top team from A bracket will be declared the overall tournament champion.
At the conclusion of the two days, coaches will select an all-tournament team.
In 2009, Lady Longhorn Skye McNeeley, then a senior, was chosen to the prestigious team.
There is no admission charge to the Classic, and Brown invites spectators to turn out and cheer on their favorite team and players.
Few in the Rim Country do not know the story that led to the founding of the Gracie Lee Haught Classic.
It was originally begun in the spring of 2005 to honor the memory of 3-year-old Gracie, who was killed Feb. 6, 2004 in a tragic accident in Star Valley.
At the time, her mother, Bobbie Jo Haught, was the Lady Longhorns’ junior varsity softball coach, and the young girl was a frequent visitor to practices and games.
Following the toddler’s death, coaches at Payson High met to organize the memorial tournament.
“We wanted to honor her family and all that Bobbie Jo had done for the program,” coach Will Dunman said. “This is our way of showing our respect for Gracie and the family.”
All proceeds from the tournament, since its inception, have gone to benefit the Gracie Lee Haught Children’s Memorial Fund.
The fund, which was established in 2005, works in conjunction with Mogollon Health Alliance to provide financial and emotional support to families suffering from the fallout of tragic accidents and unexpected emergencies, and helps those in need during the most difficult of times.
Among those who have been big-time contributors to the fund is the Benson High School softball team.
At the conclusion of the 2009 and 2010 tournament, BHS coach Shad Housley presented a $1,000 check to Brown to be donated to the children’s fund.
The money was raised by the players and marked the fourth consecutive tournament they’d made sizable contributions to the children’s fund.
Following the presentation, Brown lauded the Bobcats saying, “The Benson team has taken to heart what the tournament truly represents.
“They have also adopted the tournament color of pink and every year adorn a part of their uniform with that color.”
A Payson man, whose roots are in Benson, also praised the spirit and camaraderie of the Classic.
Brian McMinimy, a 1987 graduate of Benson High, wrote in a letter to the Payson Roundup, “I can tell you firsthand how wonderful this tournament is, how special it is to all involved and how proud the girls from all the schools are about being able to participate and the meaning behind it... Win or lose, everyone enjoys the tournament and the spirit it is played under.”
Benson has participated in the tournament since its inception, and usually contends for the title, despite being a 2A school often competing against much larger 4A and 5A teams.
About the only glitch that’s hampered the tournaments over the years has been rain.
In 2009, no rain fell but the weather was cold and swirling gusts of wind set players decked out in shorts and warm weather clothing scurrying for jackets and long pants.
During the inaugural Classic, which was then an eight-team affair, the second day of play was called off due to rain and wet fields.
The following year, Hunt took the precautions of covering all the fields for two days prior to the tournament, but good weather prevailed, and the fray went on without a hitch. Since then, there have been threats of rain, snow and cold weather, but games have been played as scheduled.
“This year, it’s suppose to be beautiful weather,” said Brown. “So come join us.”