Although Florence opens the state tournament today, May 6, against Payson with a lofty 25-4 record, seemingly more impressive than Payson’s 16-13 mark, the Longhorns actually hold an edge over the higher seeded Gophers.
The advantage is the Longhorns dealt Florence one of its few defeats having downed the Gophers 9-8 on April 1 in the Wolves Classic Tournament in Goodyear.
Much of the credit for that win should go to Jake Sleeper who pitched and enjoyed a field day at the plate going 3-for-5 with two doubles, two runs scored and an RBI.
As good as Sleeper was against Florence, coach Scott Novack is not sure he will start on the hill in the 4 p.m. state tournament opener today at Surprise Baseball Complex
“We are going to decide as a coaching staff — Sleeper, (Zack) Blazer or (Dylan) Richardson,” said Novack.
No matter who gets the all-important starting nod today, the hurler will have the challenge of setting down Florence’s outstanding hitters including Harrison Parker, Adam Touhey and Mike Shanks.
Parker is hitting at a sizzling .519 clip, Touhey sports a .511 average and Shanks bats .408.
Touhey is also the team’s extra base leader with 15 doubles, five triples and three home runs.
In Payson’s one-run tournament win over Florence, Shanks was 0-for-5, Parker 1-for-1 and Touhey finished 2-for-5 with two doubles.
Peering at those stats, it appears containing Touhey could be the key to a Longhorn victory.
Payson will take to the state game an offense that at times has been high powered, but sometimes fails to execute the fundamentals of the game such as the baseball proverb of, “get ’em on, get ’em over and get ’em in.”
The inability to execute is obviously sprouting a few gray hairs on Novack’s noggin.
Following a 5-3 East Region championship round tournament loss to Blue Ridge, he alleged the difference between BR and Payson was, “With runners in scoring position, their guys are willing to do whatever it takes to get guys home.”
Against BR, Payson hitters stranded several runners in scoring position by failing to put the ball in play.
It’s said, hitting a baseball is the toughest skill to master in all of sports, but that’s exactly what PHS batters must do today vs. Florence if the Horns are to advance to the second round.
Payson’s top hitters include Westin Gibson, Juan Machado, Chance Randall, Cale Novack, Richardson, Sleeper and rapidly improving freshman, Nick McMullen.
If they execute at the plate and on the base paths today, the Horns could be playing tomorrow in the second round.