Trailing 7-0 in the bottom of the seventh and final inning, the dreams of Payson High’s first state softball championship were slipping.
But then miraculously, the never-say-die Lady Longhorns staged one of the most amazing rallies ever witnessed in prep softball to edge a gutsy Mingus Marauder team 8-7.
The win advances the Lady Horns to the final weekend of playoff games this Friday and Saturday — when the best softball team in Payson history must defeat two undefeated powerhouses on consecutive days to win the state championship.
On Friday, they face No. 5 seeded Bourgade Catholic. A win would send them into the state championship game Saturday with the winner of the Friday match between No. 3 Winslow and No. 2 Estrella Foothills.
In the Saturday state quarterfinal game at the Rose Mofford Complex in Phoenix, the Lady Longhorns played 6-1/2 innings like a high school version of the 1962 New York Mets team that fumbled and bumbled its way to a 40-120 record.
But despite five errors and numerous mental mistakes that dominated a sloppy game for the first six innings, the PHS players came alive in their final at-bats to score seven runs. That included a grand slam homer by Taylor Petersen. That dead-knotted the game 7-7 and sent the playoff game into an extra inning.
In the top of the eighth, Payson’s pitching ace Arianna Paulson — who had uncharacteristically given up two home runs in the top of the seventh — rose to the occasion to set the Marauders down in order.
The first Mingus player to bat grounded out weakly to Paulson and the second flied out to shortstop Natalie Black. The third batter hit a sharp grounder to third baseman Devann Runzo, who fielded the ball cleanly and threw to first baseman Kaitlyn Wessel for the third out.
Hooray, great pitching — great defense.
In the bottom of the eighth, with victory now within grasp, freshman Payton Petersen — the younger sister of standout catcher Taylor Petersen — lined the first pitch offered up to center field, sending her to first where she represented the winning run.
In baseball and softball, a winning strategy on hitting and base running is often, “get ’em on, get ’em over and get ’em in,” which is exactly what unfolded.
After Runzo — a slap hitting lead-off hitter flied out — Megan Wessel bunted herself on to base, sending Petersen into scoring position at second.
Paulson, next up, fouled off three pitches before lining a double into right field.
Payton Petersen, who was off and running on the hit, steamed into third where she was excitedly waved home by head coach Will Dunman.
The throw to the plate from the Mingus right fielder beat Petersen to the plate, but the PHS freshman slid feet first. The ball popped loose from the Mingus catcher and rolled harmlessly behind her.
“She’s safe,” the home plate umpire signaled, sending the PHS players into a wild celebration that would rival the Miracle on Ice post-game party.
In the stands, Payson fans and boosters celebrated with equal enthusiasm knowing their players had pulled off the most improbable of comebacks.
With the win safely tucked away, the No. 1 seeded Lady Horns advance to the state tournament’s final four this Friday, May 11, at Mofford Complex.
At 5:30 p.m. on field Number 4, Payson plays the Bourgade Catholic Eagles. In the other final four showdown, No. 3 Winslow takes on No. 2 Estrella Foothills.
The last gasp rally
So, how did the Lady Horns — who had played without much emotion or fire for 6-1/2 innings and were trailing 7-0 — rally to tie the game?
It all began when the Lady Horns’ first batter of the final frame, Katie Jones, singled to left field.
Payton Petersen then drew a walk, sending Jones to second.
Runzo, next up, singled, which loaded the bases.
Megan Wessel then lined out to right field for Payson’s first out.
Paulson drew a walk, which forced in Jones with the Lady Longhorns’ first run of the game.
Kaitlyn Wessel also drew a walk, sending a run home that closed the Marauder lead to 7-2.
With the bases still loaded, Taylor Petersen — the school home run leader — lifted a 2-0 pitch over the center field fence for a grand slam home run that pulled PHS to within 7-6.
Petersen’s circuit blast cleared the outfield fence very near to the spot she had hit a home run a night earlier in a 7-1 state tournament win over Fountain Hills.
With the Lady Horns trailing Mingus by a single run, Natalie Black reached base on an error by the Mingus right fielder. Eventually she advanced to third, where she represented the game-tying run.
With one out, Karessa Armstrong lined to left field, prompting Black to tag up and score easily after the catch to tie the game at 7-7.
A Lady Longhorn strike out ended the inning, but not before the team had roared back into contention.
“When we were down five (runs), I thought we could come back,” said assistant coach Kadi Tenney. “But when we went down seven, I thought ‘that’s a lot of runs to score in one inning against a good team.’”
With seven full innings in the record book, the game tied and the Lady Horns about to take the field, Dunman exhorted, “New ball game! New ball game!” to his players.
The evening prior to the win over Mingus, the Lady Horns had fallen behind Fountain Hills 1-0 in the top of the first, but roared back with three runs in both the third and fifth innings. They added one more in the sixth to win 7-1.
Offensively, Payson pounded out 10 hits including Taylor Petersen’s three-run home run.
Payton Petersen turned in a sterling offensive display going 2-for-3 and scoring two runs. She singled in the third inning and tripled in the sixth.
Paulson went the distance on the hill giving up just three hits while striking out 10 and walking one.
With the two state tournament wins, PHS improves to 29-3 on the season.