Lady Longhorn volleyball coach Arnold Stonebrink and his players were focused all season long on earning a berth into the Division III postseason tournament.
For most of the campaign, that goal seemed very attainable but on Oct. 25, the Lady Horn cause suffered a setback when the Arizona Interscholastic Association announced that MaxPreps, an online prep sports information provider, discovered an error in the power point rankings they were compiling.
Those rankings are used to seed teams into the state tournament.
In a letter to high school volleyball coaches, AIA official Brian Bolitho wrote, “MaxPreps found a number of invitational games from several different tournaments that had not been removed from the seeding formula.
“To ensure the integrity of the AIA post-season seedings, which requires no invitational contests are included, MaxPreps has removed these invitational results from the formula.”
Prior to the AIA issuing that statement, the Lady Horns were sitting 14th in the power point rankings and seemed to be a sure seed to state.
But later, Payson fell to 16th — the final state seed — and the possibility existed the team could fall even further and not earn a berth to state.
But when the AIA announced top-16 teams and their respective seeds to state Saturday morning on AIA365.com, Payson was again ranked 14th and was awarded that seed to state against No. 3 Blue Ridge.
In the state’s first round, the two teams clash at 2 p.m. Nov. 2 at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
The schools, once rivals in the now defunct 3A-East region, met once during the past regular season.
On Sept. 25 at BRHS in Lakeside, the Yellow Jackets dealt Payson its first loss of the season with a 3-1 victory.
The Lady Horns cruised in the first set, 25-16, but then lost the next three by scores of 25-19, 25-18 and 25-20.
At the time, Stonebrink attributed the loss to the Jackets’ ability to completely stymie Payson’s hitting attack, “We hit an abysmal .061.”
While PHS struggled, some individuals stood out including Sydney Samuels who finished with 10 kills.
At the serving line, Megan Wessel and Shayna Neal each tallied 13 service winners and three ages.
Megan Wessel and her twin sister, Kaityln, led the team in service winners and setter Mckenzie Creighton dished out 30 assists.
For Payson to win Friday, that crew — along with teammates Taylor Randall, Emma Randall, Jade Holland and others — must turn in the performances of their prep careers.
Of Payson’s three losses to BR, the third was most competitive. In it, the Lady Horns trailed by as many as seven points before rallying to pull within 22-20.
The Lady Horns, however, were then burned for three straight points to drop the set and the match.
If the Lady Longhorns can pull off an upset at state and slip past the Yellow Jackets in the first round, the team would play at 8 p.m., that same day, against the winner of a first-round clash pitting No. 6 Verrado against No. 11 Seton Catholic — the defending state champion.
All tournament games will be played at Tim’s Toyota Center.
For the fray, No. 2 and undefeated Gilbert Campo Verde has been tagged with the favorite’s role but could receive a run for its tournament money from the reservation schools including No. 2 Tuba City and No. 4 Monument Valley.
The Northern Arizona schools have historically done well in past state tournaments.
Just two years ago, the tournament’s final four featured three reservation teams — Monument Valley, Tuba City and Window Rock. MV defeated Window Rock for the title.
On Window Rock’s road to the gold medal game, the team ousted the Lady Horns in the second round with a 3-1 triumph.