The calendar says it’s only September, but the talent level at last weekend’s Payson Invitational resembled what you’d expect to see in the Division III state tournament in November.
“It was quite an event, with 24 teams, many among the best in the state, battling each other in epic matchups,” said Payson volleyball coach Arnold Stonebrink.
Safford beat Tuba City in the final for the second consecutive season. Those two teams also faced off in last year’s state championship match, with Tuba City winning the crown.
“Let’s see if this year the championship of our tournament again is a precursor of who will meet for the championship at state,” Stonebrink said.
The Lady Longhorns didn’t win their tournament, but they did go 12-4. Payson won the consolation bracket.
“We had a very nice tournament,” Stonebrink said. “We had one bad game. Unfortunately, it bit us in the butt.”
PHS opened with a 29-27 win over Fountain Hills as the format featured games to 30 with a 20-minute time limit.
“We started off very slowly against a good Fountain Hills team, with errors and tentativeness resulting in an eight-point deficit,” the coach said. “But the passing and hitting shored up, and we found ourselves creeping back. The Falcons started to press, and we benefited from their sudden rash of errors.”
The Longhorns then beat Winslow 30-21 before falling 22-30 to an improved Show Low squad.
“We had our bad game,” Stonebrink said of the Show Low loss. “We did not play well and the difference in points hurt.”
PHS bounced back with a 30-17 thrashing of Maryvale before losing 27-24 to a strong Chandler Seton Catholic team.
“I knew we would have to pull out an upset against powerful Seton Catholic to clinch a spot in the championship bracket,” the coach said.
“Seton has garnered a few state championships in the last several years, including one two years ago. Our girls played tough, one of our best games of the tournament, but Seton prevailed.”
The Longhorns finished fourth in their pool behind Seton, Fountain Hills and Show Low thanks to the tie-breaker in scores in the matches between the three teams. Fountain Hills was plus-six, Show Low even and Payson minus-six. So PHS was relegated to the consolation bracket.
“We were all pretty bummed,” Stonebrink said.
In cross-pool play, PHS beat Holbrook, the other No. 4 seed, 2-0, beat Ganado 2-0 and split with Page 1-1. The Horns’ 5-1 record won the pool and earned them the No. 1 seed in the consolation bracket.
PHS earned a bye then beat No. 8 seed Winslow 2-1. The Lady Longhorns then beat No. 5 Flagstaff Coconino 25-22, 25-15 before knocking off No. 6 Flagstaff Northland Prep 2-0.
“I felt Coconino was the team to beat in the consolation bracket,” Stonebrink said. “The girls played well and we (beat them).”
The Panthers swept the losers bracket to meet PHS in the championship.
Coconino had to beat the Horns twice to win the bracket and appeared capable of doing that with a 25-19, 25-24 win in the first match that set up a final match for the title.
But PHS won 25-24, 25-17 to end on a positive note.
“In the second match, we rode the terrific passing and tough hitting by Emmee Ashby, Cori Barnett, Taylor Randall and Selena Shill. The girls were excited to again defeat the tough Panthers and win T-shirts.”
The Horns and Panthers have seen a lot of each other in the early going this season.
“The championship marked the 11th set in three days that we played Coconino,” Stonebrink said. “We still have a match scheduled with them later this season. And we play in the Coconino tournament next week. We are not in the same pool, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we play them in the tournament.”