The presence a standout pitching/catching battery and two all-around infield stalwarts has fans and boosters predicting the 2013 Lady Longhorn softball team could be the best ever.
Those, however, are lofty expectations considering last year’s team finished 29-4, compiled the most power points in the division during regular season play and advanced to the state tournament semifinals before being eliminated by eventual Division III state champion Bourgade.
But the 2013 team could surpass those accomplishments due to the presence of fire balling hurler Arianna Paulson, catcher Taylor Peterson and twin sisters Megan and Kaitlin Wessel. The four give the Lady Horns a nucleus of seasoned veterans widely considered among the best in Arizona regardless of school size classification.
Paulson, last year’s pitching ace, put together a phenomenal 2012 season compiling a 24-4 record and a .44 ERA
In 157.1 innings pitched she struck out 309, walked only 38 and gave up just 70 hits.
With another year of seasoning and maturing, Paulson might be even better this spring, which is probably hard for foes to comprehend.
But Paulson is not a one trick pony. She is also a torrid hitter as evidenced by last year’s .594 batting average, which included team-high five home runs, seven triples and 22 doubles. She also led the team in RBI’s with 61. At the plate, she was one of the division’s finest contact hitters striking out just eight times all season long.
Peterson, a rock solid, hard-nosed catcher with ambitions to play at the next level, is the school home run record holder, who in 2012 finished with a .343 batting average, 26 RBIs and 16 runs scored.
Legendary baseball player Bill Dickey is said to have once called a catcher’s equipment “Tools of ignorance.”
It’s believed, he meant the equipment ironically contrasts the intelligence needed by a quality catcher, like Peterson, with the foolishness to play a position as hazardous as catcher.
Whatever Dickey meant, Peterson has molded herself into one of the finest defensive catchers in the division. Blessed with a strong arm, she is also not afraid to keep base runners honest by unleashing pick off throws, even to second base.
Which means, Payson infielders must be on their toes and in position to field the catcher’s snappy pick off attempts when a base runner strays.
Last year, that did not always occur, which might be something the PHS coaching staff will work to shore up.
As for the Wessel twins, they are sterling all-around athletes who have been playing softball locally since both were tykes. Last season, Megan hit .383 with three triples, four doubles and 37 runs scored.
Kaitlin, one of the more disciplined hitters on the team, hit .371 with five triples, four doubles, a home run and a team high 19 walks.
As a team, it appears the entire roster is committed to winning the school’s first state softball title.
“Our motto has been ‘New team, same dream’. These girls want a state championship,” said assistant coach Kadi Tenney.
The approach to winning, however, will be to “Take the season one game at a time, making adjustments and improvements along the way.”
Although inclement weather and wet fields have slowed preseason practices, the coaching staff has been able to evaluate the players and “We feel really solid all around,” said Tenney.
“We have eight returning varsity contributors, four senior starters, two junior starters and two sophomores who were major contributors last season.”
Tenney also says the staff is, “Excited about the leadership and experience this group brings, knowing their talent, experience and work ethic can only work in our favor this season.”
Although the team returns a good deal of talent, there are holes to fill.
“We have only one returning varsity outfielder,” Tenney said. “Our young sophomores and freshmen are stepping in a big role in the outfield.
“We are spending a good amount of our pre-season effort trying to get these young players ready for varsity pressure.”
The assistant coach believes the players – including the young outfielders – will respond to being coached-up mostly because “They are serious about making their game better so our practices are no-nonsense.”
Best of all, Tenney added, “So, far everyone has been positive and encouraging to each other.”
While most of the staff’s pre-season attention has been on evaluating the players and plugging them into the positions they can best help the team, coaches have taking the time to evaluate several opponents.
“Mingus is on our schedule and they gave us a good fight in the post season last year,” said Tenney. “We look for them to be tough.”
Snowflake, Show Low and Blue Ridge, all Payson rivals from yesteryear when the foursome were all members of the 3A East, are expected to also field quality teams that could contend with the Lady Horns.
While regular and post season action is much anticipated, it is the Gracie Haught Classic to be held March 22-23 that holds a special place in the hearts of the coaches, players and fans because it is played in honor of young Gracie, who died years ago in a tragic accident in Star Valley. Gracie was the daughter of junior varsity coach Bobbie Jo Haught and was a frequent visitor to Lady Horn games and practices.
The annual barbecue fundraiser that this year will be held April 23 vs. Camp Verde on PHS diamond is another highlight on the schedule.
It’s a traditional get together in which fans enjoy plenty of scrumptious food, small town camaraderie and exciting softball.
Last week, the Lady Horns unofficially opened the season in a scrimmage at Winslow. Due to illnesses and injuries, only 10 PHS players traveled, but managed to return home with a 6-1 victory.