While a 13-3 Division III semifinal tournament loss to Tucson Empire was heartbreaking for Payson High coaches and players, there is much solace in knowing the team finished as one of the top four in the state, compiled an impressive 20-10 record and will return next season loaded for bear, losing only Gunner Goodman to graduation.
“We will miss Gunner, our only senior, but feel so good about what our team can be next year,” said coach Brian Young.
At the onset of the season, the team’s outlook was hazy at best because Young was a first-year head coach and the team struggled last year, failing to qualify for the state playoffs. Also, the team lost one of its finest players, Chance Randall, who transferred to a Valley-area high school.
But as the 2013 season wore on, it was obvious the players were talented and Young and his staff were quality coaches, with the moxie to lead the team into the playoffs.
Payson opened state tournament play on a tear, whipping Rio Rico 4-3, Blue Ridge 9-0, and No. 1 seeded Show Low 5-3.
But in the state semifinals April 10 in Surprise Stadium, the wheels came off the Longhorn wagon in the loss to Empire that ended after five innings on the 10-run mercy rule.
In the gut-wrenching loss, junior Dailey Carnes started on the hill, but didn’t have the same dominating magic he weaved earlier in the state win over Blue Ridge.
After giving up nine hits and nine runs, eight earned, Carnes was relieved with one out in the third inning.
After Carnes’ departure, Young praised him, saying, “He still had good control and challenged batters, but Empire was head and shoulders ahead of Blue Ridge at the plate.
“They had guys up and down the lineup that were good hitters.”
Miguel Mendoza took over for Carnes and in 1-2/3 innings also struggled against an Empire team that carried a reputation as being heavy hitters.
Empire’s chief culprit was Donny Sands, who entered the game with a team-high 57 RBI’s and had three doubles and a single with six RBI’s.
“He’s a baller,” said former Payson High School pitching star Tom “Tommy Gun” Canale who traveled to Surprise to cheer on his alma mater.
While Horn batsmen finished with seven hits, the team could never put together the big inning needed to stay in contention with the Tucson school.
For PHS, Mendoza finished 2-for-2 at the plate with a run scored.
Also, freshman Ruben Estrada shrugged off his youth and inexperience to finish 2-for-3, with a run scored and an RBI.
Carnes had Payson’s only extra base hit — a double.
Defensively, the Horns didn’t do much to help their cause, committing three errors.
The day after Empire’s win over the Longhorns, the team advanced to the state championship game to play Fountain Hills who had bested Chino Valley 7-1 in the semifinals.
In the gold medal finale’, Fountain Hills survived a 5-4 thriller.
With the season at an end, Payson players are left to await the announcement of those named to the All-Section and All-Division teams.