Life in the newly created Division III is turning into a unique challenge for Lady Longhorn volleyball players.
The confront is because reaching the promised land of the “state” tournament is much more difficult this year than it has been in past seasons. Since the Arizona Interscholastic Association this school year did away with the conference/region configuration and replaced it with divisions and sections, the Lady Horns, and other teams for that matter, are finding the going rough because smaller schools, like Payson, are now playing much larger schools.
For example, in Division III, Section I with Payson and its enrollment of 788 students are Flagstaff Coconino (1,537), Mohave (1,551) and Mingus (1,260).
It’s long been a given in prep sports that larger schools have a distinct competitive advantage over smaller ones, since the “big schools” have more students from which to pick their athletes.
Also, because Division III houses many more teams than did the now defunct 3A conference, the competition for playoff berths is much tougher.
While the Lady Horns are turning in what would have been considered a banner year in previous seasons, the team might not make the playoffs.
With the top 16 D-III teams slated to advance to the post season on Nov. 4, the Lady Horns are currently ranked 16th in power points and clinging to the final playoff spot.
Drop one spot, and PHS is out.
“With eight games left and three of those (against) extremely tough Notre Dame, Saguaro and Flagstaff, I figure we need to win our other five game games (to qualify for state),” said coach Arnold Stonebrink, “It’s a tough go.”
Other than the big three of ND, the Sabercats and Eagles, the Lady Horns must win against Mingus (twice), Fountain Hills and Blue Ridge to stay in post-season contention.
The only breather Payson appears to have remaining on the schedule is Camp Verde on Oct. 4.
The Lady Horns are bound for the crucial season-ending stretch fresh off a second-place showing in the 10-team Snowflake tournament.
The silver-medal finish wrapped up a grueling week in which the Lady Horns dropped a heartbreaker to Mogollon (Sept. 20), but then rebounded to whip the Snowflake Lobos (Sept. 21).
Following the team’s return to Payson from the Snowflake tournament on Sept. 24, Stonebrink said, “I hope the girls get lots of rest and sleep — they were exhausted.
“Heck, I was exhausted and I didn’t even play.”
In the Lobo-hosted tournament, the Lady Horns opened pool play with a 25-17, 25-13 win over Winslow and a 25-3, 25-13 thumping of San Carlos.
But the winning streak ended with a 26-24, 25-20 loss to rough and tumble Blue Ridge.
The first set went into overtime.
The team’s pool record was worthy of a second-place seed into a double elimination championship bracket.
In the first set, the Lady Horns took on former 3A East region counterpart Show Low and walked away with a 25-11 victory thanks to huge serving runs by Megan Wessel and Emmee Ashby.
In the second set, the Cougars revved up their digging game and coupled with some PHS errors jumped out to an 18-13 lead.
Let’s let the coach relive what happened next.
“After a side out, Kaitlyn Wessel stepped to the line and produced 11 straight winners,” he said. “Included in the run were three aces.”
Wessel’s heroics lifted Payson to a 25-18 pulsating come-from-behind victory.
With the win, the Lady Horns advanced to take on Safford, a team led by an outside hitter who won most valuable player honors at the Payson Invitational.
“We reconfigured our lineup to place our best blockers on her,” said Stonebrink. “She seemed affected a bit by the block and did hit some out.”
Although the Bulldog star seemed to stumble, Safford was able to take the first set to triple set point, 24-21.
A side out, however, got Payson to within two and Katelyn Curtis’s ace closed the Dog lead to one.
The Lady Horns then scored a kill on a free ball back to tie the score.
Rising to the challenge of leading her team, Curtis wrapped up a 27-25 PHS win with two consecutive service winners.
The second set also turned into a nail biter in which Safford was trailing only 21-20 late.
But then McKenzie Creighton drove a nail into the Bulldog coffin, scoring four straight service winners, including an ace, to salvage a 25-21 triumph.
In the win, Stonebrink cited Kaitlyn Wessel, Emmee Ashby and Curtis for their strong serving.
With the “W,” the Lady Horns advanced to the semifinals to take on archrival Snowflake, a team PHS had upset days earlier in a dramatic five-set victory after being down 0-2.
At the time, Stonebrink called it, “Our biggest victory of the year.”
In the tournament, however, the Lady Horns couldn’t duplicate the earlier win, falling 25-16 and 25-23.
The loss dropped PHS into the losers bracket to take on Blue Ridge for the fourth time this season.
“We came out about as fired up as the Yellow Jackets came out flat,” said Stonebrink.
In the first set, Payson prevailed easily 25-20.
In the second set, the Lady Horns routed the Jackets 25-13 behind standout serving from Curtis who had a run of 11 straight service winners that included three aces.
With the win, Payson earned a berth in the tournament championship against Snowflake, which was then state fifth-ranked.
Using tight blocking and passing, the Lobos won easily 25-26 and 25-17.
The blocking and passing, “seemed to fatigue us,” said Stonebrink. “We really didn’t challenge them much at all.”
While the Lady Horns didn’t return home with the tournament gold, the players did earn the respect of Stonebrink.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of volleyball players,” he said. “We suited up 11 players, five of which were jayvee.”
The decrease in varsity numbers can be attributed to injuries, ineligibility and some who quit the team.
“We had only six of the original 10 varsity players we kept at the beginning of the season and the jayvee players filled in magnificently,” said Stonebrink. “If fact, at one point I looked out on the court and noticed five of our six players were jayvee and all sophomores.”
The coach cited the passing tandem of Megan Wessel, Kaitlyn Wessel, Harley Turney and Curtis for being “rock solid.” He also praised the spirited play of outside hitter Emma Randall who had to “tool” or finesse the ball due to an injured arm.
The Lady Longhorns return to action today, Sept. 27, against Blue Ridge in Wilson Dome.
Freshman game time is 4 p.m., the jayvees play at 5 p.m. and the varsity an hour later.