When Payson’s 10-11-years Little League softball All-Star players were selected at the conclusion of the regular season, coach Andre Newell expressed optimism that the team would represent the program well, mostly because those chosen had been playing fast-pitch since the program began three years ago.
Newell’s confidence in his celestial crew was on target as the team played its way to a berth in the state tournament by defeating Flagstaff in two out of three games.
The most recent win, July 9 on Rumsey 1, the Payson Stars ran roughshod over Flagstaff 19-5 to nail down the Area 1 and District 1 championships which entitles the team to move on to state, which begins next week in Benson.
In the first meeting of the two finalists, July 6, Payson played errorless ball to win 8-7. In the second game against Flagstaff, July 8, the Payson Stars were their own worst enemies, stranding runners and committing errors that resulted in a 15-10 loss.
Due to both team’s 1-1 record, a third and deciding game was needed to decide which would advance to state.
Rising to the challenge much like Rocky Balboa did in the final round of his second fight against Apollo Creed, the Payson All-Stars run-ruled Flagstaff in just four innings.
Newell contends the outcome of the rubber match was never in doubt because Payson scored 12 runs in the first inning and then coasted to the victory.
Most of the tournament, the pitching-rich Stars relied on hurlers Jenna Smith and Kalea Smith.
But in the third game win, Bryndee Hall — who might be known for her considerable exploits in the rodeo arena rather than on the diamond — was called on to hurl.
“She pitched real well,” said Newell. After two innings, Lauren Murray mopped up for Hall.
Both pitchers received solid defensive help from an outfield and infield that the manager said, “played great.”
Offensively, Jodi Taylor led the Rim Country hit parade finishing 3-for-4 with 3 RBIs.
Kylee O’Donald was also 3-for-4 at the plate.
With the win, the team will be the first Payson softball team to advance to the state tournament.
Newell is not sure of Payson’s first round state opponent or of the date and time, because tournament games in other districts around Arizona have not yet wrapped up. At state, which is being hosted by Benson of Little League District 8, Payson will play a double-elimination bracket against representative from all 12 Districts around Arizona.
A softball connection
Playing Benson will be an extension of an ongoing relationship between the two towns in the sport of fast-pitch.
The affiliation began eight years ago when Benson High School was among the original teams to play in the inaugural Gracie Haught Classic in Payson. Benson has returned every year since and usually is among the more successful teams despite being a so-called “small school,” often pitted against other high schools with student bodies much larger.
Last spring during a Friday evening gathering of prep players from all tournament teams, the awarding of “Spirit of Gracie” trophy to Benson provided some the most emotional moments of the Classic.
Each year, Bobcat players have donated proceeds from their volunteer work around the southern Arizona town to the Gracie Haught Children’s Memorial Fund.
This year, they donated $1,700.
“The girls earn the money doing odd jobs — babysitting, cleaning — just about anything they can get paid for,” said tournament director Charlene Brown. “They truly bring the spirit of Gracie to the tournament.”
The Memorial Fund is used to pay for children’s health programs and to provide family assistance for children’s medical bills.
It was also Benson players and coaches who several years ago — after learning Gracie’s favorite color was pink — showed up for the Classic wearing pink uniforms.
On the diamond, Benson and Payson High have locked horns in several fierce, hard-fought tournament games.
But they have always been played in a spirit of competition and camaraderie that residents of both towns should be proud.