The Payson Longhorns baseball team debuted Feb. 17 on PHS diamond against a Winslow Bulldogs squad ranked seventh in Division III, but one that WHS coach Art Griffith describes as young and inexperienced, though enthusiastic.
The season-opening scrimmage was originally scheduled to be played Feb. 14, but rescheduled due to a wet playing field.
PHS coach Scott Novack, in his second year at the helm of the program, had five returning letter-winners to put into the lineup against Griffith’s Dogs. Those five are multitalented players expected to form the nucleus of the 2012 teams.
Chance Randall started at third base vs. Winslow, but can also play catcher and outfielder. Miguel Mendoza can play second base, shortstop and also pitch.
Nick McMullen is comfortable at first base, in the outfield and can pitch.
Cale Novack, the coach’s son, is an outfielder, infielder and pitcher.
While Dylan Richardson could be the Horns’ first-line pitcher, Will Dougherty got the starting nod vs. Winslow and hurled two innings before giving way to Cale Novack.
Dougherty pitched well early in the game, but didn’t receive much help from a shaky PHS defense that failed to convert routine infield grounds and long fly balls.
Last year, Dougherty played mostly on the jayvee team, but is expected to pitch and play outfield and infield for this season’s varsity edition.
Tyus Sarnowski got the start at catcher vs. Winslow and appeared well equipped to handle the challenges.
Konor Duran, Garrett Geske, Dailey Carnes and Curtis Hollowell could this year be varsity regulars after playing mostly jayvee last season.
Duran is a pitcher and infielder, Geske is purely an outfielder, Hollowell can hold down either a catcher or outfield position and Carnes is an infielder and outfielder.
Sam Grassel, who played jayvee two years ago, but sat out last season, has returned to the baseball fold. He can play first base, outfield or pitch.
What, no jayvees?
If there is a problem Novack and is staff can’t figure out, it’s the lack of enough freshman and sophomore players to form an underclass program.
“I’ve been disappointed with the freshman and sophomore turnout,” Novack said.
Currently, there are not enough fledgling athletes to field underclass teams and the program could be cancelled.
That problem, however, is one that baseball coaches around small-town Arizona face, but few have answers to.
Some say the costly pay-to-play fees at PHS are curtailing participation, others say it’s a general lack of interest in the demands of athletics and others believe more students are working part-time jobs and don’t have the afternoon hours available to practice and play.
Whatever the reason for the lack of young players, Novack is forging ahead with his plans of building Payson High into a title contender year in and year out.
That includes an ambitious off-season program to fine-tune each player’s skills.
Just weeks before the onset of the season, Novack gave the athletes time away from offseason workouts to rest and gear up.
But the time off might have resulted in a few miscues once practices began.
“We’ve been a bit rusty, but we are ahead of last year, especially with our young guys knowing what to expect,” Novack said. “We need some guys to step forward and win positions — not because we need somebody there, but because they are the best defensive player possible.”
Last year, Novack focused on improving the team defensively and would like the “D” to be even better during up upcoming season.
Another of the coach’s goals is to cut down on strikeouts, especially in crucial situations, which was a bugaboo that haunted the 2010 team.
“We need to put a bat on the ball,” said Novack. “We have some big guys who can hit the ball hard sometimes — hopefully we can develop consistency.”
While hitting is hugely important in the grand scheme of baseball, the sport’s purists argue vehemently that pitching is the real gauge of success.
Novack predicts, “Our pitching could be greatly improved if guys continue to develop and compete.”
In addition to pitching and defense, intangibles are another facet of the game that can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
Novack realizes that, and just moments before the Longhorns took to the PHS diamond on Friday for pregame fielding practice, the coach called all players back to admonish them for jogging into position, saying hustle is one of the intangibles he expects from each player.
After listening, the players took heed and sprinted to their positions.
Although the coach was forced to take time out to reinforce the baseball fundamental of hustle, he says he’s noticed the team “Is a great group of guys from a camaraderie and coachability standpoint, but we have to get them to see the correlation between the factors of hustle, attitude, competitiveness and caring about each other and the team.”
With the rigors of preseason about to end, Novack and his staff of Waylon Pettet, Scott Nossek, Brian Young and Ty Goodman are scouring the division trying to figure out which teams will be the ones to beat.
“A lot of coaches feel Estrella will be good,” Novack said.
The team returns a strong pitching staff and is top ranked in Division III preseason polls.
Defending state champion Blue Ridge is also expected to be formidable as is River Valley, Mingus and Holbrook.
BR is ranked second, River Valley third, Mingus fourth and Holbrook fifth.
Others that could contend for honors include Scottsdale Christian, Show Low and Scottsdale Coronado.
On to Fountain Hills
The Longhorns open the regular season at 8 a.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, Feb. 22 against Northwest Christian in the eight-team Fountain Hills Invitational to be played at FHHS. At 1 p.m. tomorrow, Payson plays a tournament game against Bourgade Catholic.
At 10:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 24, the Horns play Winslow.
The following day, consolation and championship games will be played.