Say hello to state, goodbye to the East Region season-ending tournament.
That’s what the Longhorn baseball team is doing this week as it prepares to travel Friday, May 6 to the Surprise baseball complex for a first round matchup against the Florence Gophers. Game time is 4 p.m.
The Horns visit Surprise clutching an East Region tournament runner-up trophy having posted a 2-1 record in the postseason fray played April 26 to April 30 in Payson and Eagar-Springerville.
The Horns advance to the 3A finals with a No. 9 seed, a 16-13 record and will be taking on a No. 8 seed in the form of Florence.
In the East Region tournament, the Longhorns opened with an 18-2 win over Round Valley and in the semifinals edged past Show Low 5-4.
Those two wins propelled the Horns into the championship game against state top-ranked Blue Ridge.
Although the Horns gave the Yellow Jackets the fight of the season, Payson came up short falling 5-2.
In facing the Jackets, Horn hitters were pitted against a pitcher, Sebastian Kessay, PHS coach Scott Novack has called one of the finest in Arizona.
In hurling all seven innings of the Jackets’ triumph, Kessay gave up just two hits while striking out 13.
About the only flaw in Kessay’s performance was his control — he walked eight.
However, neither of the runs scored against the BR ace were earned.
As good as Kessay was on the mound, Novack believes it was another facet of the game that led to the Horns’ demise.
“With runners in scoring position, their guys are willing to do whatever it takes to get the guys home,” he said.
As an example he points to the bottom of the fifth, a frame in which the Horns were within 3-2 and Edwin Estrada was on the hill in relief of starter Zack Blazer.
“The nine hitter singled, Estrada hit a (batter) with one out,” he said. “With runners at first and second, Nick Williams doubled home his second RBI of the game.
“(Danny) Groebner then smartly hit a grounder to first to score the runner from third.”
Those two insurance runs pushed the BR lead to 5-2 and with Kessay on the mound, the cushion proved impossible to overcome.
While BR took advantage of its scoring opportunities, as Novack alludes, Payson failed to cash in on a golden opportunity in the top of the fifth inning.
With one out, Juan Machado and Jake Sleeper walked and Westin Gibson slapped an infield base hit to the left side.
“The ball got away allowing Machado to score and it’s 3-2 Blue Ridge,” said Novack.
But with runners on second and third and one out, the Horns watched in vain as the opportunity to take the lead and pull off the upset of the season skirted away.
“Chance Randall and Edwin struck out,” Novack lamented. “In the sixth we had runners on first and second with two outs, but struck out again.”
In addition to striking out in key situations, Payson suffered when hitters “failed to execute in bunt situations,” Novack said.
The Horns did, however, receive yeoman like pitching efforts from Blazer and Estrada.
Blazer hurled three innings, giving up three runs, none of which were earned. He walked two and gave up just one hit.
Estrada relieved and went three innings allowing three earned runs, four hits and no walks.
“Both pitched well enough for us to win,” said Novack.
Gibson turns up the heat
In the semifinal, nail-biting win over Show Low, Gibson found himself in one of the most pressure-packed situations a prep pitcher can experience.
The drama unfolded in the bottom of the seventh inning with the Horns clinging to a 5-2 lead.
“Show Low’s nine hitter got (on first) on an error, the next hitter doubled and the two hitter plated a run on a fielder choice,” said Novack.
That run narrowed the PHS lead to 5-3.
“Then an error on a pop-up scored a run and it’s 5-4,” said Novack. “A walk loaded the bases with the tying run at third and the winning run at second.”
Locked in a desperate do-or-die situation, Gibson put an end to the threat and the game by setting down Show Low’s No. 7 hitter on a swinging third strike.
Gibson was pitching in relief of starter Dylan Richardson who hurled four-plus innings allowing two earned runs. Richardson struck out five and issued just one walk.
Against Round Valley in a tournament first-round game, Payson jumped out 3-0 on Gibson’s three-run home run in the bottom of the first.
From that point on it was all Payson as Will Dougherty and Estrada combined to keep RV’s offense at bay.
Estrada opened and hurled three scoreless innings, facing just 11 batters, two over the minimum.
Pitching in relief, Dougherty gave up a two-run home run, but it was too little, too late for the Elks.
Cale Novack led the hitting attack going 3-for-3 at the plate with five RBIs.
In the state tournament, the Horns will be playing at the Surprise Baseball Complex that is actually the spring training home of the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals. The Horns last played there in 2009.