The struggling Payson economy received a welcome boost and more than 300 teenage girls enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime and perhaps 1,000 spectators sampled the charms of Payson at the hugely successful 8th Annual Gracie Haught Classic softball tournament played March 16 and 17 at Rumsey Park and Payson High School.
“It was much more than sports,” said tournament director and co-founder Charlene Brown. “It was a chance to show off our town, celebrate a little girl’s life and enjoy two full days of fun and camaraderie.”
Although much of the attention was focused on the more than 40 prep games played, it was an inaugural “Spirit of Gracie” ceremony held Friday evening that is being hailed as a show of character and good will.
Players from all 20 teams representing schools of all sizes gathered in Rim Country Middle School gymnasium to watch movies, enjoy snacks and mingle.
Lady Longhorn assistant coach Kadi Tenney points to the evening as one in which teenage girls could make friends with total strangers — ones they might not otherwise ever meet.
“Taylor Petersen, one of our shyest players, went home that evening and told her mom about the friends she had made,” Tenney said. “It was a great experience.”
The awarding of “Spirit of Gracie” trophy to the Benson High School softball team that has been in the tournament field since its inception eight years ago provided the most emotional moments of the evening.
Each year, Bobcat players have donated proceeds from their volunteer work around the southern Arizona town to the Gracie Haught 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 Brown. “They truly bring the spirit of Gracie to the tournament.”
It was also Benson players and coaches who several years ago — after learning Gracie’s favorite color was pink — showed up for the tournament wearing pink uniforms.
The spirit was obviously contagious — at last weekend’s tournament, several other teams followed Benson’s lead donning pink T-shirts and uniforms.
In fact, girls from the Estrella Foothills tournament championship team asked Brown that their winning souvenir T-shirts, which will be printed and shipped to them next week, be pink.
While the invitational drew large numbers of players, coaches and family members on Friday, opening day, even more showed up to support their teams on Saturday.
“It was great, the park and school overflowed with people,” said Brown. “It seemed like whole families were there.”
Valley resident Pat Jamison was among those who traveled to Payson for the games.
“I’ve been through (Payson) many times, but never left the highway,” he said. “I had no idea the town had all these sports facilities and everyone is so friendly.”
Jamison, calling himself a longtime high school sports junkie, praised the tournament for its unique atmosphere that was absent of the win at all costs attitudes that occur in some prep clashes.
On Saturday afternoon, when it became obvious crowds for Saturday’s late afternoon championship game, which pitted Benson and Estrella Foothills, were growing larger, Brown moved the game from Rumsey Park to the PHS diamond where there is more seating.
Still, “The stands were full,” Brown said.
Although the tournament is being called well-run, organized and a fitting tribute, Brown did face unexpected obstacles on Friday when she learned local motels were filled and some teams were without places to stay that evening.
“They were going to drive hours to return home then come back the next day,” Brown said. “But we were able to find some local homes for them to rent and everything turned out fine.”
Molding the classic into a small town gala that would draw teams and their followers from around Arizona has been a goal of Brown and fellow organizers since the tournament was founded in memory of Gracie who died Feb. 6, 2004 in a tragic accident in Star Valley.
At the time, her mother, Bobbie Jo Haught, was the Lady Longhorns’ junior varsity softball coach, and the young girl was a frequent visitor to practices and games.
Following the toddler’s death, coaches at Payson High met to organize the memorial tournament which has grown into one of the most popular prep events in small-town Arizona.