In the Lady Longhorn volleyball team’s final three matches of the season, the players will be out to nail down a postseason berth while earning the most advantageous seed possible.
Just last month, when Payson was undefeated at 6-0 and ranked No. 7 in power points, a top seed seemed a sure thing.
But after the Lady Horns improved to 9-0, the team went into as tailspin losing two of three matches putting their state playoff hopes of entering with a good seed in jeopardy.
With matches against Fountain Hills (Oct. 16), Mingus (Oct. 20) and Notre Dame Prep (Oct. 22) remaining in the regular season, Payson must be at the top of its game to reach the postseason promised land clutching a decent seed — or advancing at all.
“Working for position for state would be a luxury,” coach Arnold Stonebrink said. “My goal now is just to make it to state.”
The quick demise of the volleyball team began Oct. 2 in Flagstaff where the Lady Horns fell, 3-0, to a very talented Eagles squad.
“We got swept, but it was perhaps the best 0-3 loss, I’ve ever had,” Stonebrink said.
“The girls were competitive. Each set was competitive — and we came within two set points of going to set four.
“Flagstaff is that good.”
Payson fell 25-19, 25-18 and 27-25.
Most amazing about the Eagle team is that its standout server, who jump-served with a top spin Stonebrink calls “killer” is only a freshman.
“I about fainted when I heard that,” the coach said.
In addition to Flagstaff having a standout server, they also boasted of a top-notch front line.
“Their hitters, who are tall and can jump like crazy, were awesome,” Stonebrink said. “Several times we had the block set up, but they just pounded the ball over the block for a kill.”
Individually for PHS, right side hitter Kaitlyn Wessel turned in a superb all-around performance chalking up six kills in 11 attempts with no errors.
She also was the team’s top serve-receiver with a 2.21 mark. At the service line, she had 12 serves, two aces and no errors.
Emma Randall contributed a team-high eight kills. Taylor Randall finished with four and Mckenzie Creighton had three. Creighton, Payson’s setter, also led the team in serving efficiency.
The Lady Horn effort in the loss was hampered by the absences of the team’s top hitter, Sydney Samuels and starting defensive specialist Kaylee Byers, who were sidelined ironing out academic issues.
Also, designated server Cierra Rose was slowed by an allergic reaction.
“She looked like she had gone 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali,” Stonebrink said. In Samuels and Byers absence, Jade Holland and Harley Turney stepped in to fill the void.
“Jade plays strong at middle hitter and is very versatile,” Stonebrink said. “Harley is solid in the back row.”
The day after falling to Flagstaff, the Lady Horns played host to Camp Verde in Wilson Dome where Payson jumped back on the winning track, sweeping the Cowboys, 3-0, by scores of 25-12, 25-17 and 26-24.
In the hotly contested third set, Stonebrink inserted four junior varsity girls into the lineup.
Of those, Shealea Garza and Turney drew praise.
“Both had a terrific match, digging out the ball and serve-receiving,” said Stonebrink. “Harley has a lot of experience playing varsity — last year going in for people who were hurt or ineligible.”
At the service line, Shayna Neal shined scoring five aces on the Cowboys in 16 attempts without an error.
Her 12 service winners also led the team.
On Oct. 4 in Scottsdale, the Lady Horns returned to regular season action only to lose a heartbreaking 3-2 decision to Saguaro High School.
In it, Payson lost the first two sets, rebounded to win the next two, and in set five fell 15-13.
The Lady Horns’ loss was somewhat of a surprise since Payson swept the Sabercats on Sept. 13 in Wilson Dome.
“Saguaro played a lot better and improved from when we swept them,” said Stonebrink. “They certainly didn’t look like a team that has struggled for much of the year.”
The demise of the Lady Horns could be attributed to strategy errors in which the team didn’t take full advantage of scouting reports they had obtained from game films and what occurred in the previous game between the two schools.
“We did a poor job of following the report the first couple of sets,” said Stonebrink. “I often brag about how smart this team is, but we didn’t play very intelligently.”
In the third and fourth sets, Payson players finally adjusted to Saguaro by moving the block to the right side hitters.
The adjustment resulted in back-to-back wins to force the rubber set.
“We lost the fifth set not because we reverted back to not playing them smart, but because we made a lot of errors,” Stonebrink said.
In the finale, Payson trailed late, 14-10, which meant the Sabercats owned quintuple match point. But a side out pulled Payson to within 14-11 and Creighton hit two tough serves to close the Sabercat lead to 14-12.
From there, Jade Holland lifted a line drive from Emma Randall over the net to pull Payson with 14-13.
Just seconds later, Creighton dug at the 10-foot line, but Emma Randall’s tip fell into the net allowing Saguaro to survive 15-13.
Following the match, Stonebrink lauded the play of Holland, a middle hitter, who was filling in for Samuels.
“She had a high hitting efficiency; unfortunately she had little opportunity to hit because we need good passing to setup up the middles.”
In power point rankings at press time, the Lady Horns (9-2) were sitting No. 11 among the 49 teams in Division III.
Safford is top ranked with a 9-1 mark.