Armed with a bevy of returning letter winners expected to lift the Lady Longhorn softball team to new heights this season, Payson High departs Thursday, March 1, to Buckeye for the Hawk Invitational.
From last year’s team, Taylor Petersen, Kaitlyn Wessel, Natalie Black, Devann Runzo, Megan Wessel and Karessa Armstrong return to provide leadership, defense and hopefully a red-hot offensive attack.
Petersen, a catcher, set the school’s home run record as a freshman and hones her skills in the off-season playing club ball in the Valley.
Kaitlyn Wessel and her sister, Megan, are two of the finest all-around athletes at the school and their talents play a major part in buoying the softball cause. Kaitlyn plays first baseball and Meagan can hold down spots in either the outfield or infield.
Runzo was the Lady Horns’ ace pitcher last year and returns this season with added maturity and strength.
She is being projected as a possible postseason honors winner.
Black returns to anchor the infield at second base and Armstrong can play in the outfield or catch in relief of Petersen.
Also, the Lady Horns have acquired two new players whose families recently moved to Payson.
Arianna Paulson relocated to the Rim Country from Ohio and is expected to pitch and become an outfielder.
Marley Speckles formerly lived in the Valley and is now an outfielder on the PHS roster.
Several players who last season were on the freshman and jayvee teams now bolster the varsity. They include Katie Jones, Summer Kelley, Rylie Perkes and Ashley Ralston.
Jones is mostly an infielder, but the other three are combo infielders-outfielders.
Kelley also saw some pitching duties during the 2011 campaign.
With the roster intact, coach Will Dunman and assistant Kadie Tenney have been putting the players through their practice paces in preparation for the upcoming tournament and new season.
“Practices have been very upbeat and players have brought a lot of energy to the field,” Dunman said. “The competition is great, the players are pushing each other to better themselves.
“Attitude is the key. This group of young ladies have great attitudes and that turns into the hustle and heart you need to be a great team.”
After several weeks of accessing the team, the coach predicts pitching will be a team strength.
“We have Devann returning — she was our workhorse last year,” Dunman said. “Megan Wessel is back and healthy and we have added Arianna to the staff.”
In addition to pitching being a plus, Dunman is predicting the team will be well rounded. “I feel confident we should do very well on defense and will be great from the plate — we really have some hitters.”
This spring, Dunman appears more confident in his team than he has been in past years. In fact, he struggles to point out any weaknesses,” We have good players to fill some spots that our five seniors left (last spring), but we have the right ladies to take care of business on the field.”
Although Payson will be playing a somewhat different schedule this year due to the AIA reconfiguration that did away with the conference-region format and replaced it with divisions and sections, Dunman’s position is that the new alignment shouldn’t have much of an effect.
“We will see a lot of the same teams from last year and some teams we have not faced in a long time like Camp Verde, Salt River, Miami, Mingus and Page,” the coach said. “Other than having to travel to Page, it’s a good schedule.”
As for the championship favorites in Section III, Division III where PHS is aligned, the coach says, “I’m not sure, I am just going to focus on our team and take one game at a time.”
Also on the coaching staff with Dunman and Tenney are Brandi Waugh, Bobbie Jo Haught and Marissa Murray.
The Lady Horns do not debut at home until Wednesday, March 7 when Fountain Hills visits for a 3:45 p.m. showdown.