With the Longhorn baseball team set to begin a long-shot pursuit of Payson High School’s second-ever state baseball championship, those of us long in the tooth fondly remember the spring of 1999 when a group of scrappy, but unheralded young baseball players set the prep sports world on its ear by winning the Longhorns’ first-ever Arizona title.
Like this season, the Horns entered the state tournament as huge underdogs, especially after dropping two regular season games — on the 10-run mercy rule — both to No. 1 ranked Cactus Shadows. The Falcons entered the state championship game 27-0 and boasting a roster full of talented players who enjoyed the luxury of playing Valley-area, year-round baseball.
Some fans consider the Horns’ 1999 win the biggest upset in Arizona prep sports history.
The junior and senior members of that team were a special group to me because I’d had the privilege of coaching them on the Rim Country Middle School’s two, first-ever tackle football teams.
Both the 1994 team and the 1995 group finished undefeated and won White Mountain League championships, despite being the new kids on the block.
I also had the privilege of having most all those players in my classroom during my tenure in the Payson Unified School District.
Today, I affectionately remember the group as “knot heads” but they were hard-working, dedicated and a whole lot of fun.
Here is some of the coverage I penned in 1999 for Payson Roundup readers:
“Over the PA system, the sounds of Queens’ rock-opera hit “We Are the Champions” filled the stadium. From the dugout, someone shouted, “The fat lady has sung.” On the field, Payson players dog-piled one another in unbridled enthusiasm. In the stands, fans hooted and hollered, as if they were holding winning lottery tickets.
“That was the scene late Saturday afternoon in the Peoria Sports Complex where the Payson Longhorns upset highly favored Cave Creek Cactus Shadows 23-11 to win the Class 3A state baseball championship.
“It was sheer Rim Country bedlam and for good reason. In the 35-year history of the Payson High School baseball program, the long-awaited victory represented the Longhorns’ first state championship.
“Prior to Saturday’s finale, Payson was thought to have about as much chance at winning the 1999 state title as Arizona Diamondbacks baseball fans do of catching Buck Showalter crack a smile.
“But the Horns were primed for the challenge and responded with a 21-hit attack that sent the Falcons’ ace pitcher, Casey Huston, scurrying to the showers in the fifth inning. No team this season has been able to do that to Huston.
“Cactus Shadows coach Scott Cook called upon relievers Josh Phillips and Andrian Antico to quench the Payson firestorm, but neither could cool the Horns’ hot bats.
“In the top of the second inning, the Horns unleashed an 11-hit barrage that set a state championship game record. Also, the 12 runs scored in the inning were the second most in any title game.
“The Horn stampede couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. After Payson took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, Cactus rocked Longhorn starter Bryan Zumbro for eight runs in the bottom of the inning. During the seemingly endless outburst, Cactus Shadows sent a stream of 13 batters to the plate.
“Payson fans were on edge. ‘Is this game going to be more of what they did to us earlier (this season)?’ one barked from behind the Horns’ third base dugout.
“Cactus Shadows zealots were quick to leap onto the Falcon bandwagon, hurling barbs at Zumbro and at some other Payson players.
“Zumbro was unaffected by the verbal barrage. ‘Actually, it kind of amused me,’ he said in the dugout.
“Finally, with two outs, a good defensive play by shortstop Scotty Garduno put an end to the CS blitzkrieg. Playing deep, Garduno ranged to his left, scooped up a sharp infield grounder and unleashed a throw across the diamond that nipped the Cactus Shadows’ batter hustling down the line.
“Trailing by six against a team as heralded as Cactus Shadows, the Longhorns could have folded up the tents and called it a day.
“But inside the dugout, the call was for unity.
“‘Let’s get it back, we can do it,’ junior right fielder Nik Brunson shouted.
“‘We’re OK, we’re OK,’ third baseman Cade Bradley yelled.
“Another player spouted, ‘Don’t be denied.’
“PHS coach Ted Pettet joined in by urging his charges to focus on the task at hand and put the misfortunes of the past inning behind them.
“The optimism paid huge dividends minutes later when the record-setting second inning helped Payson reclaim the lead, 14-8.
“After his rocky start, Zumbro, who finished 12-4 on the year, settled down to hurl the entire six innings and earn the win.
“While he didn’t dominate, Zumbro was able to come up with just the right pitch, usually a curve ball down in the strike zone, to confuse Falcon hitters in crucial situations.
“‘I just wanted (Cactus to hit) ground balls,’ he said.
“Zumbro’s best effort might have occurred in the bottom of the sixth after Payson had built a 12-run lead, and the PA announcer sent Horn fans into a frenzy by proclaiming, ‘If Cactus Shadows does not score this inning, the game will end on the AIA 10-run rule and Payson will be declared state champions.’
“Reaching back for every bit of energy he could muster, Zumbro retired the first hitter on a routine fly ball to right field.
“The next Cactus Shadows hitter ripped a sharp ground ball to the right side of the infield that first baseman Hunter Walden gloved on a desperation diving attempt. Zumbro covered first and the on-target underhand toss from Walden caught the runner by a half step.
“After watching Zumbro give up a single to the number-nine hitter in the CS order, Payson faithful rose to their feet and unleashed a thunderous roar of encouragement that easily drowned the Falcons’ now mild-mannered cheering section.
“Inside the dugout, Pettet remained confident, but admitted the crucial circumstances were testing the resolve of almost everyone.
“On a 2-balls, 2-strike count, Zumbro ended the drama with a tailing away fastball that set the final Falcon hitter down on a swinging third strike.
“During those final at-bats, the adrenaline was obviously flowing in Zumbro. His fastball, veteran catcher Marc Bennett said, was reaching velocities not seen before.
“‘I guess I was kind of pumped,’ said Zumbro.”
Here’s hoping that unforgettable scene can be recreated during the 2013 Longhorn team’s quest for Payson High’s second state crown.