More than 30 years of coaching football, basketball and baseball at every level from seventh grade to high school varsity has conditioned me to take nothing for certain and expect almost anything.
But none of those experiences — which have included great upsets, go-for-broke wins, disheartening defeats and chilling victories — prepared me for what occurred Saturday morning at Rose Mofford Complex in Phoenix.
There, the never-say-die Lady Longhorns dangled from the ropes one inning from elimination as they trailed Mingus 7-0 — with just three outs left.
Payson fans were deadly silent, Marauder boosters were hootin’ and hollerin’ like they held the winning lottery ticket. Umpires and officials were looking forward to post-game meals and some members of the media left in search of more exciting state tournament games.
But against all odds, the Lady Horns rose from their ashes as improbable as the mythical Phoenix bird.
The Lady Horns’ last-gasp rally for seven runs in the final inning to tie up the game and send it into extra innings was something no one could have expected.
Even with the score tied, the Lady Horns’ chance for a win seemed slim, mostly because the Marauders had for 6-1/2 innings overwhelmed Payson with good pitching, strong hitting and a junk yard dog’s fighting mentality.
But lo and behold, Payson scored in the bottom of the extra inning to pull off a stunning victory that left coaches, players and fans breathless and exhausted.
The movie-script rally bore witness to a group of hard-nosed, almost fanatical players who simply refused to quit.
That type of plucky and courageous attitude has carried the Lady Horns through this magical season.
Among those who played as though possessed was pitcher Arianna Paulson. Only a sophomore, she was struggling in this all-on-the-line game — giving up two home runs and walking four. Behind her, the usually reliable team also struggled — committing five errors, some of them simple mental miscues.
Throughout the latter innings, Paulson frequently rubbed and stroked her pitching hand as if it was sore or she had a blister. The fireballer had to contend with 90-degree heat after hurling a full seven innings just 12 hours earlier.
Lesser players would have collapsed under the strain. They could have made excuses and returned to the comforts of home where they could play video games, text and tweet.
But Paulson refused to give in — even for one pitch.
“Sheer guts,” is how most coaches would describe her efforts.
Junior catcher Taylor Petersen also signaled her refusal to quit with a grand slam home run in the bottom of the seventh that closed the Mingus lead to 7-6 and breathed life into the PHS corpse.
This season, Petersen didn’t have the power-hitting year she did as a freshman. That year, she set the school home run record. But on Saturday with the season on the line, she was at her best when her best was needed.
Her younger sister, Payton — only a freshman — played with a maturity far beyond her years, refusing to bite at pitches out of the strike zone.
What resulted were two walks, a single and two runs scored, one of which turned out to be the winning run.
In the team victory, others also fought through the slump to contribute during crunch time.
Certainly, big-money contracts, spoiled athletes and the toxins of winning at all costs have corrupted professional sports. But high school sports remains pure and uncontaminated, providing teens with an extraordinary opportunity to showcase their talents, character, grit and determination.
Oh yes — and one more thing: In high school, it’s also OK to run around screaming and laughing with unbridled joy.
And that’s exactly what occurred Saturday morning at Rose Mofford — on and off the field, come to think of it.