The volleyball season is winding down.
Payson has just five regular-season matches remaining.
Of course, the Longhorns are hoping to be among the 16 teams qualifying for the Division III state tournament.
And they took a big step toward achieving that goal with a five-set victory at Flagstaff Coconino on Monday night.
“Had we lost, our aspirations for making state would have taken a severe hit,” said head coach Arnold Stonebrink. “Now we are right in the thick of things.”
Payson won 25-15, 25-21, 22-25, 22-25,15-5.
PHS entered the match at No. 16 in the power rankings, which are the main factor in determining which teams qualify for the state tournament. Coconino was No. 15. The victory pushed the Longhorns ahead of the Panthers and into the No. 15 spot. They then beat Show Low at Payson on Tuesday night 3-0 to move up to No. 14.
The top two teams in each of the five sections receive automatic berths, with six at-large qualifiers determined by the power rankings.
Safford is No. 1, Snowflake No. 2 and Flagstaff No. 3. Payson is No. 14. Coconino is No. 16.
Tucson Empire is first in Section II and Sahuarita second. Both are below the top 16 in the power rankings — Empire No. 19 and Sahuarita is No. 25. That means if those teams remain out of the top 16, Payson would have to rank among the top 14 teams or finish among the top two in Section IV to earn a berth. However, finishing among the top two in the section is unlikely since Snowflake is No. 2, Flagstaff No. 3 and Blue Ridge No. 8 in the power rankings.
As long as PHS doesn’t fall below No. 14 in the rankings, the Longhorns should qualify for the state tournament.
“I think we can do it,” Stonebrink said. “(Monday night’s) win was huge in being able to do that.”
The Horns face a big challenge in their next two matches. They travel to play Snowflake today, with the freshman match at 1 p.m., the JV at 2 and the varsity at 3 to allow the players to attend the Payson at Snowflake football game at 7 p.m. Snowflake then visits Payson on Tuesday night (Fr.-4:30, JV-5:30, V-6:30). The Longhorns close the schedule at Cortez on Oct. 24, at Moon Valley on Oct. 29 and finish at home against Chino Valley on Oct. 30.
Today’s match with Snowflake doesn’t count in the section standings, but Tuesday’s will. Only one of the two matches against the other eight teams in the section count in the section standings. However, all 16 of them count in the all-important power rankings.
So Monday’s win was crucial. It was the Longhorns’ third victory in four matches with the Panthers this season.
“It was a huge win for us against a strong, quality opponent,” Stonebrink said.
Payson middle hitter Emmee Ashby said the Longhorns are improving as the season goes on.
“We killed them the first two sets and it was great,” the senior said. “It was great because it was on their home court, worth big power points and we ended up flipping spots with them for seeding.
“We went to the game and I think we were kind of hesitant about what was going to happen and we just came in and rocked. I think that’s the first time we’ve played so cohesive. There was a totally different team on the court and it was awesome.
“We’re getting better. The first part of the season we were kind of playing like six separate people and it was frustrating but
But now we’re playing as a team. We’re one and it’s awesome to be part of that now. And it’s starting to show on the court and that’s why we’re winning.”
Stonebrink liked what he saw from his players early in the match.
“We started off on fire, serving, passing and hitting like fiends,” Stonebrink said. “Coconino’s passers had a rough time passing our serves, and they couldn’t get their twin hitting phenoms going. We won going away.
“In the second set Tristan Eddie started off with a serving run that sucker-punched us. After we fell behind 1-6, I called timeout and the girls settled down. They got side out immediately, and quickly caught up and went ahead. The Panthers’ hitters started heating up, and kept it close, but we had enough in the tank to win.
“Coconino’s 6-foot-3-inch middle hitter Kierstin Fowler and outside hitter Marissa Hoffman really began to assert themselves the third set and gave us fits with their high and hard hits. Coupled with Eddie’s tough serves, we fell behind early, and spent the whole set playing catch up. We battled and battled, but after closing to within 22-23, gave up the last two points to lose.
“The fourth set was a near repeat of the third set. In the huddle I suggested the girls ratchet up their serving to get the ball out of the Panthers’ hitters hands, and they obliged. Our hitters took advantage of pinpoint and deceptive setting by Mckenzie Creighton, and they, particularly Taylor Randall, Selena Shill, Cori Barnett and Jade Holland, stayed strong and got several kills, while tough serving prevented Coconino from getting the ball into Fowler’s hands, and she was a non-factor.
“Hoffman had some opportunities, but she uncharacteristically had three hitting errors the last set. I don’t know if she got fatigued or what, but I was proud of my girls for finding a higher energy level, and finishing strong. We were ahead 8-5 when we sided out, and Mckenzie served strong in a six-point serving run, culminating in the win.”
Ashby led all servers with four aces and 18 service winners. Garza and Kelsee Stonebrink added 14 winners apiece. Klara Sorensen was the top serve-receiver, followed by Kaylee Byers. Byers led a “solid” team digging effort, according to the coach, with 10 digs, followed closely by Garza’s nine and Harley Turney’s eight.
Creighton passed out 40 assists. Barnett was a “beast” at the net, according to the coach, garnering a block and two block assists.
“Taylor gave Coconino fits in the consolation championship of our tournament, and she did the same thing in our match (Monday) night, hitting .395 and slamming down 19 kills. Holland hit .273 (five kills), Barnett nailed eight kills (.250 hitting), and Shill pounded 11 kills (.185).
Creighton hit .500 and dropped eight kills. The team hit a “resounding” .261.
“A big difference in this match was, even though Fowler and Huffman hit well, we had more weapons,” Stonebrink said.
“Coconino focused on stopping our top hitter, Emmee, and although they had some success, they had no answer for our other hitters.”
The freshmen and JV also both beat Coconino 2-0.