The field of four new teams — Tempe, St. Johns, St. Mary’s and Tanque Verde — has joined 16 returning teams to give the annual Gracie Haught Classic one of the largest and most unique fields in the state.
The tournament field is distinctive because the schools entered are of various enrollment sizes and represent all parts of Arizona.
Apache Junction, Tempe, Estrella Foothills and Sunnyslope are Valley-area so-called “Big Schools” while Joseph City, Camp Verde, St. Johns and Round Valley are rural small schools.
Tanque Verde, Santa Cruz and Benson represent southern Arizona in the tournament.
Although Holbrook and Winslow are not technically Northern Arizona reservation schools, many of their athletes are from the Navajo and Hopi tribes.
With the wide variety of schools entered, the Classic affords players the opportunity to compete against athletes they might not see during the course of the regular season when teams are locked in sectional and divisional competition.
The Classic also features an “8th Inning Social” in which the players have the opportunity to meet one another in a non-competitive, non-threatening atmosphere.
The 2013 social begins 7 p.m. March 22, the opening day of the tournament, in the Payson High School gymnasium.
Lady Longhorn assistant coach Kadi Tenney points to the evening as one in which teenage girls can make friends with total strangers — ones they might not otherwise ever meet.
Such was the case last year when some Lady Horn players formed friendships with visitors that continue today.
Also, the naming of the Spirit of Gracie Award winner highlights the evening.
Last year, the trophy went to the Benson High School softball team that has been in the tournament field since its inception nine years ago.
Over the years, Bobcat players have donated proceeds from their volunteer work around the southern Arizona town to the Gracie Haught fund.
In 2012, the team donated $1,700.
Although Tournament Director Charlene Brown has not finalized details of the 2013 Classic, she has laid much of the groundwork including grouping the teams into pool play for opening day.
Payson has been aligned in Pool D along with Camp Verde, St Mary’s and Round Valley.
The Lady Horns pool games are:
• 9 a.m. vs. Camp Verde at Kiwanis East at Rumsey Park
• 1:30 p.m. vs. Round Valley at Rumsey 1
• 3 p.m. vs. St. Mary’s at Rumsey 1.
On the tournament’s second day, Brown will seed the teams into bracket play based on their won-loss records in pool play.
For the tournament, all five Rumsey Park fields and Lady Horn diamond at PHS will be utilized.
Last year, the Lady Horns opened the tournament 4-0 but on the second day lost back-to-back games to eventual tournament champion Estrella Foothills, 1-0, and Blue Ridge, 2-1.
The Lady Horns opened the 2013 season March 1 and 2 at the Wrangler Classic in Wickenburg.
There the team finished 3-3 but was without the services of ace hurler Arianna Paulson who did not make the trip due to illness.
Paulson is expected to return to the team and be at full strength for the upcoming Classic.
The Horn offense will also feature plenty of firepower with school home run leader Taylor Petersen in the lineup. Petersen, a senior catcher, swatted two home runs in the Wrangler Classic and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Paulson and Petersen coupled with senior twin sister infielders Kaitlyn and Megan Wessel give the Lady Horns a roster as strong as any in Division III.
The Classic has been since its inception a school’s and town’s way of honoring the memory of 3-year-old Gracie, who was killed Feb. 6, 2004 in a tragic accident in Star Valley.
At the time, her mother, Bobbie Jo Haught, was the Lady Longhorns’ junior varsity softball coach, and the young girl was a frequent visitor to practices and games.
Since Gracie’s death, Bobbie Jo has returned to the team serving as a scorekeeper, player confidante and coach.
Also, Payson High School coaches and administrators met following the accident to organize a memorial tournament.
“We wanted to honor her family and all that Bobbie Jo had done for the program,” coach Will Dunman said. “This is our way of showing our respect for Gracie and the family.”
Helping children in need
The children’s fund was started about eight years ago with the help of the Mogollon Health Alliance.
Bobbie Jo Haught said the fund was founded to help her and other family members deal with the anguish of the loss of a child.
“We wanted to try and find an outlet for the grief and a way to help children and families in need,” she said.
The money earned is earmarked for various children’s projects around the Rim Country.
“We do a lot of things with the money to help kids,” Bobbie Jo said, citing money that has been doled out to help pay children’s medical bills, purchase toddler and infant car seats and pay for CPR and first aid training.
“If it’s anything associated with medical help and safety for children, we can usually help out,” she said.
“It is something very beautiful and something our whole community should be proud of and celebrate.”
Hosting the tournament, Brown said, wouldn’t be possible without the help of its two chief sponsors — the Mogollon Sporting Association and the Town of Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department.