SHOW LOW – The target on the Longhorns’ backs just got bigger.
Payson’s softball team has occupied the No. 1 position in the Division 3 state power rankings most of the season, making the Longhorns a team every opponent is ready to try and take down. Beating them would make the season for many teams.
And in case anyone was unclear whether or not they deserve that top ranking, they went out and proved they do by winning what is without question the best section in the division.
Payson’s 9-6 victory at Show Low on Friday clinched the Section 5 championship. The Longhorns’ 12th consecutive win left them 24-8 overall and 14-0 in power points games heading into Monday’s game at defending state champion Goodyear Estrella Foothills. They play host to Fountain Hills at 6 p.m. today before closing the regular season with a section contest against a Globe team that’s 1-6 in the section at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Payson.
PHS is 7-0 in the section, which featured five of the top six teams in the division power rankings as of Monday morning, including the top three.
The Longhorns lead second-place Winslow, which is No. 2, by one game in the section. Show Low is No. 3, Blue Ridge No. 5 and Snowflake No. 6. Tucson Empire at No. 4 is the only non-Section 5 team in the top six.
Winslow is 25-1 overall and 6-1 in the section heading into its finale at Snowflake on Wednesday. The Bulldogs’ only loss was by a 2-0 score in the section game at Payson on April 8. Should the teams wind up tied, Payson wins the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“We’re very excited about winning the section, although we haven’t put any emphasis on it as coaches,” said first-year PHS head coach Kadi Tenney. “We are sticking with our plan to focus on one game at a time right up until the end. I think winning the section is a great stepping stone to our ultimate goal of a state championship.
“I am really proud of how well we have played as a team up to this point. Every player is taking their contribution seriously and continuing to work hard every day. We will continue to focus on the little things, hoping it will pay off big in the end.”
The Longhorns will be the favorite to win the first state title in program history after bowing out in the semifinals the past two seasons.
Show Low (21-8 overall, 13-3 power points games) entered last week 6-0 in the section before losing to Winslow 16-7 on Wednesday. Payson beat Show Low 2-0 at Payson on April 9 in a non-section game.
PHS scored five runs in the top of the third and added four more in the fifth to take a 9-2 lead. Show Low scored two runs in the third, two in the fifth and one in both the sixth and seventh.
Payson outhit the Cougars 6-5, but also benefited from five walks and four Cougar errors. Payson committed one.
Sophomore Jewel Johnson had two of the Longhorns’ six hits. She doubled and drove in two runs. Arianna Paulson, the team’s only senior, doubled twice and drove in a pair. Sophomore Arissa Paulson crushed her ninth home run of the season, driving in two.
Arissa Paulson started in the circle, scattering four hits, walking four and surrendering four earned runs while striking out eight over five innings. Arianna Paulson finished by limiting the Cougars to one hit and two walks and two unearned runs with four strikeouts in two innings.
Arianna Paulson, who missed the first Show Low game because of illness, said the Longhorns haven’t really spent much time discussing championships.
“It’s exciting to be champions of the section,” she said. “But we haven’t talked about the section championship or any other championship because our goal as a team is to improve each game.”
Junior catcher Payton Petersen said it’s good to know the Longhorns won the most challenging section in the division. “It feels like we accomplished something,” she said.
Another junior, center fielder Cori Barnett, said she’s glad her coaches didn’t mention what a win over the Cougars would mean. “I think it’s better they didn’t tell us because that would have put pressure on us,” she said. “Being No. 1, we have a target on our backs already. It would have been worse if they told us.”
Junior second baseman Sadie Dunman agreed that it was probably best that the players weren’t aware that the section title was theirs with a win.
“I thought it was just another game,” she said. “It’s good they didn’t tell us so we didn’t go out there and psych ourselves out. This section is better this year than in past years. And it’s nice to see harder teams this year before the state tournament.
“I think we all kind of know our potential. We work hard in practice because we know practice makes perfect. We all click together. We never have any disagreements or anything.”
The Longhorns host Fountain Hills today at 6 p.m. in a non-section game before Wednesday’s finale.
Div. 3 Section 5 Softball
Section Power Pts.
W L GB W L
x-Payson 7 0 - 15 0
Winslow 6 1 1 16 1
Show Low 6 2 1.5 13 4
Blue Ridge 4 3 3 11 6
Snowflake 4 3 3 12 4
Holbrook 2 5 5 7 9
Round Valley 2 5 5 8 9
Globe 1 6 6 4 11
Alchesay 0 7 7 1 16
Monday, April 28
San Tan Foothills at Globe
Payson at Goodyear Estrella Foothills
Tuesday, April 29
Section 5 Games
Alchesay at Blue Ridge, 3:45 p.m.
Alchesay at Holbrook, 4 p.m.
Show Low at Snowflake, 3 p.m.
Fountain Hills at Payson, 6 p.m.
Wednesday, April 30
Section 5 Games
Winslow at Snowflake, 3 p.m.
Round Valley at Blue Ridge, 4 p.m.
Globe at Payson, 6 p.m.
St. Johns at Holbrook, 3 p.m.