A problem that haunted the PHS baseball team all season lifted its ugly head to bite the Longhorns in the rear during a 10-0 state tournament opening round loss to the Florence Gophers.
The dilemma centered on the hitters’ inability to drive runners home once they had advanced into scoring position.
Against Florence, on May 6 at Surprise Baseball Complex, the Gophers took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but the Horns loaded the bases the following inning and had just one out.
But as has been the case most of the season, the Horns did not score a run. In the following frame, the Horns had a runner at second with one out and again failed to score.
On another occasion, the Horns stranded a runner at third.
The puzzling bugaboo — which involved striking out in clutch situations, failing to advance runners and hit the ball the opposite way — was obviously disheartening to coach Scott Novack.
“We struck out nine times and left seven runners on base — we did not hit the ball,” he said. “The same things that went wrong against most good pitchers we faced were magnified against a good Florence pitcher (Mike Shanks) in a big game.”
While Shanks did not exhibit a red-hot fastball, he did have in his arsenal a decent overhand curveball and other off-speed offerings.
“We worked all week on hitting the overhand curve and recognizing pitches, but for some reason we still don’t read pitches,” Novack said. “I have no explanation as to why we worked on it all year and failed to do it.”
The coach then shook his head and summed up the loss in one word — “frustrating.”
For Payson, Jake Sleeper opened on the mound and struggled with his control, falling behind on most hitters.
“A lot of 3-2 counts and 0-2s that turned into 3-2s,” said Novack.
Zack Blazer relieved Sleeper, but also didn’t experience much success in shutting down Gopher hitters.
Entering the game, scouting reports showed that Florence’s Adam Touhey was going to be a tough out because he brought a sizzling .511 batting average to the state tournament.
Those reports were dead-on accurate as Touhey was a one-man wrecking crew finishing 4-for-4 at the plate with two doubles, two runs scored and an RBI.
In all, Gopher hitters tagged PHS hurlers for 13 hits.
Payson’s offense churned out only three hits — one each by Dylan Richardson, Edwin Estrada and Chance Randall.
Since the 3A tournament is single elimination, Payson’s appearance can be summed up as “one and done.”
In second round games played May 7 in Surprise, Florence was eliminated by an 8-1 loss to top-seeded Blue Ridge.
Also in the second round, River Valley advanced to the semifinals with a 11-2 win over Chino Valley, Estrella Foothills earned a berth in the final four by defeating Safford 15-0 and surprising Holbrook advanced with a 9-5 victory vs. Empire.
On May 13, Blue Ridge plays River Valley and Estrella Foothills takes on Holbrook.
The winners of those two games play at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 14 for the state championship.
The biggest upset in the tournament occurred in the first round when No. 15 Empire upset No. 2 Fountain Hills 8-6. Also a mild upset occurred in the opening round when No. 13 Chino Valley slipped past No. 4 Window Rock, 2-1.
With the season at an end, all that remains for the Payson players is to await the announcements of the 3A East All-Region team and all-state selections.
The senior players are also eligible to participate in the Arizona Baseball Coaches Association North vs. South All-Star game.
Payson is expected to have players chosen for postseason honors.