Battling tooth and nail over the course of two action-filled days, the Lady Longhorns copped a very respectable fourth-place finish among the 24 teams entered in the Payson Invitational Tournament.
“We came within an eyelash of making the top three,” said coach Arnold Stonebrink.
In the fray played Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 in Wilson Dome and the Rim Country Middle School and Julia Randall gyms, Safford emerged as champion, edging No. 2 Tuba City in a one-set rubber match. Florence, a team that has been Payson’s nemesis throughout the summer season, took third by slipping past the Lady Horns 11-10 in a third-set showdown that was needed after the two rivals split the first two sets.
In the opener, Payson erased an early double-digit deficit only to lose 25-22.
“The comeback fell short,” said Stonebrink.
In the second set, Payson again struggled early, falling behind 7-1 before Shayna Neal went on an eight-point serving run to jump-start a 25-21 PHS victory.
In a voting of coaches following the invitational, Lady Longhorn Emma Randall was named to the all-tournament team.
Delaney Scanlon, a senior setter and captain from Mingus, was named the tournament’s MVP.
Everyone in the pool
The invitational tipped off Friday morning with teams battling in four pools of six teams each.
Playing in the gold pool, the Lady Horns opened with a 30-18 win over Holbrook, only to lose their second set, 30-20, to Florence.
In Payson’s third set, the team rebounded to double the score on Coolidge 30-15.
Next up, PHS lost to Ganado, 30-25, after being outscored 15-10 in the late going.
In Payson’s final pool game of the day, the Lady Horns soundly thumped Tempe 30-12.
The team’s 3-2 pool record tied PHS with Ganado for second place. But because Ganado had won the head-to-head meeting between the two teams, the Hornets received the second berth into cross-pool play that evening and Payson was relegated to third.
Pitted against Mingus in cross-pool action, the Lady Horns lost the first set 21-18 but rebounded to win the second 21-11.
“I think the split of the match is a good indicator of how our two (regular season) matches with the Marauders will go this season,” Stonebrink said.
After splitting with the Cottonwood school, Payson defeated Page 21-19 and 21-9. Hours later, the team wrapped up cross-pool play with 21-10 and 21-16 wins over Window Rock.
Payson High’s 5-1 cross-pool record earned the team a No. 9 seed into championship bracket that began play Saturday morning.
Going for the gold
Payson opened against Flagstaff Coconino and appeared to be at the top of their game winning the first set 25-7.
“Perhaps our most dominating set of the tournament,” said Stonebrink.
But in the next two sets, the wheels flew off the Lady Horn wagon as the tournament hosts lost 25-18 and 15-7.
Stonebrink attributed the two losses to “sloppy and lackadaisical play” in which Coconino “completely controlled the tempo and destroyed us with their hitting.”
With the loss, PHS fell into the losers bracket where the team took on Blue Ridge, an old rival from the two school’s long tenure in the now defunct 3A East Region.
In the clash, the Lady Horns pulled off what might have been the surprise of the tournament ambushing the highly regarded Yellow Jackets 25-21 and 25-15.
“I don’t know why it came so easily — whether they were pooped or we played that good,” said Stonebrink. “Our serving and passing kept them from running their offense with consistency and we were the aggressors throughout the match.”
Following the match, BR packed home to the White Mountains and Payson advanced to take on a Fountain Hills team that was buoyed by former Lady Longhorn Morgan DiFelice.
“Morgan is an integral part of their team,” said Stonebrink. “She passes and hits well and is the No. 1 server.”
In the first set, the Lady Horns opened with their characteristically dismal start falling behind 14-4. After Kaitlyn Wessel’s serving run rallied Payson to within 24-23, the Lady Horns lost a 25-23 nail-biter.
In the second set, Kaitlyn Wessel added another huge service run to propel PHS to a 25-14 win and set the stage for an all-the-marbles third and deciding set.
In the thriller, the Lady Horns survived 11-10 in what Stonebrink is calling an “epic match against a very quality opponent.”
With the hard-fought win the team advanced to play a Ganado team that was on a roll having earlier beaten Blue Ridge, Fountain Hills, Florence and Coconino.
As good as the Hornets had been, they were no match for Payson, succumbing 25-18 and 25-10.
“This came in spite of losing Megan Wessel as a valuable starter at outsider hitter and master server,” Stonebrink said.
With the loss of Megan due to a shoulder injury, Stonebrink juggled his lineup shifting Neal to outside hitter, Kaitlyn Wessel to right side hitter and inserting Kaylee Byers at libero. “All three performed beautifully,” the coach said.
Highly talented Florence was next up for the Lady Horns who dug themselves a deep hole in the first set only to rally back and then lose 25-22.
In the second set, Neal unleashed a serving run of eight straight points that lifted PHS to a 25-21 win.
With the match tied 1-1, the two teams clashed a third time with their tournament lives at stake.
Payson took an early 6-4 lead, but a 6-3 Gopher run gave Florence double match point at 10-9.
Facing adversity square in the kisser, the Lady Horns scored to tie the set at 10-10. But just moments later, a PHS serving error gave the Gophers an 11-10 win. Payson’s disappointing loss ended what had been an impressive run through the losers bracket that had the team on the edge of winning a top-three trophy.
Stonebrink, after compiling tournament stats, praised Taylor Randall for her seven stuffs and five stuff-assists, both team highs.
Megan Wessel also drew plaudits for leading the team in serving efficiency and aces with 22. Jade Holland was lauded as the team’s No. 1 serve-receiver.
While the Payson Invitational is in the record books, the Lady Horns’ 2012 quest for tournament honors has not ended.
The team travels tomorrow, Saturday, to Flagstaff where it will compete in the Coconino Panther Invitational.
On Sept. 21 and 22, the Lady Horns will be in Snowflake to compete in the Lady Lobos’ tournament.