There’s a grand sports experiment going on in Payson and as unique as it is, success appears imminent.
The experiment involves the Club Rim volleyball team and the out-of-town players currently on the roster.
Since the club was founded six years ago, only Payson High School players have been members of the team.
But this year, the Club Rim 18-years-and-under team has attracted three out-of-town athletes and, believe it or not, the trio are from two of the Payson High’s most fierce rivals — Blue Ridge and Snowflake.
Jessica Johnson and her younger sister Jenifer Johnson joined Club Rim from Blue Ridge, and Snowflake’s Tandi Yellowhair is also on the roster.
During the past high school volleyball season, Jessica Johnson, a senior setter for the Yellow Jackets, was named Division III’s Player of the Year, an AIA and Arizona Republic first team honoree and on Jan. 21 in Mesa was named a high school All-American.
She was also chosen to the 3A all-region and all-state teams in 2009 and 2010.
With Johnson setting, the Yellow Jackets advanced to the state semifinals before losing to eventual D-III champion Seton Catholic.
Coaches say her younger sister, only a sophomore, has the talent to, in the next few years, round into an equally outstanding player.
Yellowhair, also a sophomore, was a Division III, All-State honorable mention recipient last season.
Her Lobo team advanced to the D-III state tournament as a No. 11 seed, but was eliminated in the first round by state semifinalist Tuba City.
Club Rim parent liaison Julie Ashby says the three newcomers were never recruited to join the Payson team, but because Snowflake and Blue Ridge do not have off-season teams, the girls hooked up with Club Rim and travel to Payson for practices.
All of the club’s games are played in the Valley.
On Club Rim, Yellowhair and the two Johnsons play alongside some of the Lady Longhorns’ finest players from last season, including Emmee Ashby, Kaitlyn Wessel, Megan Wessel and Shayna Neal.
While it might not seem individual standouts who are ferocious rivals during the high school season could co-exist on the same court, Julie Ashby says the opposite is true.
“They all get along very well,” she said. “In fact, they are all friends.”
Former collegiate players Victoria Ibarra and Rachel Beeler shoulder the coaching responsibilities of insuring the girls not only get along, but also play as a well-oiled, cohesive unit.
Most impressive about the players, Julie Ashby says, is most are much younger than others in the 18-years-and-under age division, but remain highly competitive.
Emmee Ashby, Jenifer Johnson and Yellowhair are just sophomores, sometimes competing against players much older and more experienced.
Julie Ashby believes the addition of the three new players coupled with some of Payson’s finest athletes and expert coaching will ultimately result in a team that could be a force to reckon with at the USA Volleyball National Championship and also in Junior Olympic play.
The team has thus far lived up to its lofty reputation, finishing second last week in an Arizona Region USA Volleyball hosted tournament in Buckeye.
During the course of the season, the team will play in six tournaments, including the state championship in late April.
The players’ immediate goal, however, is to reach the Southern California National Qualifier when it is played March 16 to 18 in Anaheim, Calif.
To reach the qualifier, the players must earn the thousands of dollars needed to make the out-of-state journey.
The quest to earn the funds has begun with players selling raffle tickets each Saturday outside a number of local stores including Walmart and Bashas’.
Also the team has scheduled an upcoming car wash and has secured two corporate sponsors — the Tonto Apache Tribe and Steve and Linda Loy, the new owners of Chaparral Pines. “We are very grateful for them,” Julie Ashby said.
The team is now accepting sponsors and anyone wishing to help may send donations to Club Rim, 1402 Sunset Dr., Payson, AZ 85541.