The post-season plaudits are beginning to roll in for starring members of the Payson High School baseball team.
They arrived late last week in the form of all-region selections, the naming of two seniors to play in the Arizona Baseball Coaches Association North vs. South All-Star game and the possibility of having two scholars compete in the first-ever academic all-star clash.
In the All-East region voting, Westin Gibson and Jake Sleeper were named first team and Chance Randall and Edwin Estrada were tapped second team.
Honorable mention honors went to Dylan Richardson.
Both Gibson and Sleeper will play for the North team in the all-star game and PHS first-year coach Scott Novack will be a North coach.
Gibson and Sleeper have also been nominated by Novack to compete in the inaugural 2011 Academic All-Star Baseball Classic being sponsored by the City of Surprise and Coca-Cola.
The final selection of the academic all stars has not been made, but Novack expects to learn the award winners by early next week.
Players nominated must be graduating seniors with a grade point average of 3.50 or higher.
The game, which is being billed as an opportunity “to recognize and honor student athletes for the achievements on and off the field,” is scheduled for 5 p.m., Sunday, June 5 at Surprise Stadium which is the spring training home of the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals.
The nine-inning game will be followed by an on-the-field awards ceremony.
The AzBCA North vs. South game tips off at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 28, also at Surprise Stadium.
Another honor Payson High recently received did not go to players or coaches, but rather to the revamped PHS baseball diamond.
“Our field picked up Most Improved Field for the East (region) and 3A conference,” said Novack. “We will not know for a couple of weeks if we win for the entire state.
“There is a prize that comes with that one.”
The upgrading of the field occurred last summer after a small group of men, including Slade Gibson, Ty Goodman, Scott Geske, Reece Randall and Novack volunteered to do extensive repairs and improvements.
Winslow baseball coach Art Griffith is among those visitors who praised the field, saying in an early season game, “It (the field) is great; so much better than the old one.”
About the upgrades, Novack said, “We worked our butts off last summer.”
In the coaches’ selection of Gibson to the all-region team, the coaches’ all-star game and possibly the academic all-star clash, Novack is hailing him, as “a four-year varsity starter with a desire to win as much as anybody I’ve ever coached.
“He came up big for us many times.”
Official statistics are not available, but Gibson is the team leader in batting average, extra base hits and RBI’s
The coach said of his star infielder, “I tell scouts all the time, he’s a five-tool player; he’s the only one who ever beats him.”
A five-tool player refers to an athlete who excels at hitting for average, hitting for power, has base running skills and speed, throwing ability and is an excellent fielder.
Among the major leaguers who have been called “five tool players” are Alex Rodriquez, Willy Mayes, Duke Snider and Ken Griffey, Jr.
In addition to Gibson being tapped to the East first team, he was under consideration for East Player of the Year, but that honor went to Blue Ridge’s Nick Johnson.
For Payson last season, Gibson played shortstop and on occasions pitched.
In addition to being selected to the baseball all-star game, he will play this summer in the football all-star game.
About Sleeper, Novack said, “He improved tremendously and was a big-gamer despite being hampered with a leg injury most of the year.
“He hit over .500 against AIA competition and had some huge hits and huge games.”
Blue Ridge coach Joe Merklin praised Sleeper for being the Longhorns’ “toughest out,” said Novack.
For the entire season, Sleeper batted better than .400 and was a team leader in bases on balls.
Although Sleeper was Payson’s ace hurler most of the season, leading the pitching staff in innings pitched, he played second base when he wasn’t on the mound.
“At second, he was pretty darn steady,” Novack added.
In lauding both Sleeper and Gibson, the coach has just one regret.
“I wish I could have had a couple of more years with these guys, especially before this season,” he said. “They were keys to our early (season) success.”
If this season there was an exciting, pulsating game that will be locked forever in the coaches’ and players’ memories, it occurred during an April 6 clash against the visiting Show Low Cougars.
The drama unfolded in the bottom of the seventh inning with Show Low clinging to a precarious 7-6 lead and Payson coming to bat.
Ryan Rislund led off the inning with a base hit and advanced to second on Juan Machado’s sacrifice bunt. Just pitches later, Rislund took third via a passed ball.
Reaching deep into the Cougar playbook, coach David Nikolaus drew in his infield to cut off a potential tying run at home.
The ploy is sound baseball coaching strategy where you are a high coach or a major league manager.
However, the strategy backfired when Sleeper bounced a single through the drawn-in infield that scored Rislund to tie up the game at 7-7.
C.J. Nottingham was inserted to run for Jake Sleeper and Westin Gibson drew a walk to put runners at first and second with one out.
On a 0-2 count, Chance Randall refused to fold under the pressure, instead ripping a hot shot through the drawn infield to score Nottingham with the winning run.
Moments like that are why we play the game of baseball.