A sign hangs on the wall of the home dugout at Payson High’s varsity baseball field. It reads: Focus on the next 200 feet.
“The analogy is, when you’re driving a car at night you can only see 200 feet ahead of you,” said second-year Longhorns varsity baseball head coach Brian Young. “Even last year, we said our goal is just to get better every day. So, we’re trying to stay focused on just one day at a time and not talk about the state tournament.”
The reminder is necessary because of the high expectations for this year’s team, which is loaded with talent, experience and confidence after reaching the Division III state semifinals a year ago despite a roster featuring just one senior. So it’s difficult not to think about improving on a 20-10 campaign highlighted by a state tournament run in which the No. 9-seeded Longhorns shocked No. 1 Show Low in the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, Tucson Empire popped the Longhorns’ balloon in the semis.
So forgive players and fans if they have trouble not daydreaming about maybe claiming just the second state championship in program history. It’s been 15 years since the Longhorns won the 1999 Class 3A crown.
“Obviously, it’s in the back of a lot of people’s minds,” Young said. “And we’ve had discussions with the guys that we can’t fast forward to that point. And we don’t want to, because we have a lot of fun. So these guys are not in a hurry. But they know in the back of their minds where we would like to get back to. We’re just focused on one day at a time, trying to get better. So we don’t spend much time talking about it right now.”
Although Gunner Goodman has graduated, 11 players return. Six 2013 varsity letter-winners are among the team’s nine seniors. But it’s not just experience that makes this squad one of the favorites to contend. The known talent in this lineup contrasts with all the unknowns at the start of last season on a team with one senior and a relatively inexperienced head coach.
“I would say it was a surprise for us,” said Young, who spent the previous seven years in the program coaching mainly at the junior varsity level. “We knew we had a good nucleus of kids, it was just getting them to believe that they were good. And at times that took some work last year.
“So I think coming in this year the mindset’s a little bit different with these guys. I think they have a pretty good idea of how good they can be. And now it’s just making sure they perform and meet those expectations.”
The returning veterans include first baseman-pitcher Nick McMullen. The 6-foot-5 senior was PHS’s offensive star as a junior, leading the Longhorns in batting average (.515), RBIs (47), home runs (11), triples (7), slugging (1.060), on-base percentage (.554) and runs (41). He also belted seven doubles and swiped 14 bases on 15 steal attempts. He struck out just 13 times in 112 plate appearances.
On the mound, McMullen led the Longhorns with more than 11 innings pitched with a 3.39 earned run average. He was 3-2 with two saves with 32 strikeouts in 33 innings, the third-highest total on the team. He has gone from a sidearm to more of a submarine delivery this year, in which he releases the ball just inches above the ground. That new delivery should make him even nastier on batters. He’s expected to get plenty of save chances.
Other returning seniors include shortstop-pitcher Dailey Carnes, catcher-pitcher Tyus Sarnowski, second baseman-pitcher Miguel Mendoza, third baseman-pitcher Konner Duran and center fielder Jesus Perez. Mendoza was Payson’s ace as a junior, going 7-2 with a 3.86 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings. He also batted .352 and was 9 for 10 stealing bases.
Both Mendoza and Sarnowski led PHS with eight starts. Sarnowski went 4-3 with a 5.20 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings. He batted .264, slugged .406 and drove in 22 runs. Carnes fashioned a 2-2 record with four saves, a 4.38 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 32 innings. He led PHS with 15 appearances on the mound.
Carnes was second on the team in batting average (.400), slugging (.600), on-base percentage (.474), RBI (25), runs (36), triples (3). He led PHS with 11 doubles, 15 steals (in 15 attempts) and tied Duran for the team lead with 13 walks.
Juniors David Evans (OF) and Logan Morgan (OF) and sophomores Taran Sarnowski (RF), Ruben Estrada (Utility) and Carl Adcock (OF) also return. Morgan is dealing with an arm injury. The versatile Estrada is expected to play several positions in the field after hitting .341 as a freshman, with a team-high-tying 13 walks, which helped him finish third with a .426 on-base percentage. He was 14-for-14 stealing, ripped seven doubles, drove in 19 runs and scored 25 times.
Senior Frankie Gonzalez (OF) saw limited varsity action as a junior. New to the varsity are seniors Jorden Landress (OF-P) and David McCarthy (OF) and junior catcher-outfielder Hunter Lane, who joins the team after transferring from Arkansas. Landress and McCarthy could see time at designated hitter.
The expectations are high for PHS, but that’s also the case for defending champion Fountain Hills, which returns its top three pitchers. Empire has moved up to Division II. Payson is in Section V, which also includes Winslow, Lakeside Blue Ridge, Show Low, Snowflake, Holbrook, Globe, Eagar Round Valley and Whiteriver Alchesay. Young said Winslow could be strong. He also said Show Low has talent despite losing ace and star hitter Zach Winn, who’s now pitching at Howard College.
The Longhorns open the season at the eight-team Fountain Hills Invitational on Wednesday. They face Phoenix Northwest Christian at 8 a.m. and Phoenix Bourgade Catholic at 1 p.m. They take on Winslow at 10:30 a.m. Friday and play one game on Saturday.
2014 PAYSON BASEBALL SCHEDULE
Feb. 26 At Fountain Hills Inv.
Feb. 28 At Fountain Hills Inv.
March 1 At Fountain Hills Inv.
March 6 Cottonwood Mingus, 4 p.m.
March 7 at Morenci, 4 p.m.
March 11 at Camp Verde, 3:45 p.m.
March 13 Show Low, 4 p.m.
March 18 at Fountain Hills, 4 p.m.
March 19 Snowflake, 4 p.m.
March 27 Blue Ridge, 5:30 p.m.
April 1 at Holbrook, 4 p.m.
April 3 At Estrella Foothills Inv.
April 4 At Estrella Foothills Inv.
April 5 At Estrella Foothills Inv.
April 8 Winslow, 5:30 p.m.
April 11 At Snowflake, 4 p.m.
April 12 Camp Verde, 2 p.m.
April 14 At Blue Ridge, 6 p.m.
April 16 Whiteriver Alchesay, 5:30 p.m.
April 17 At Page, 3 p.m.
April 19 At Cottonwood Mingus, 12 p.m.
April 22 At Round Valley, 3:30 p.m.
April 25 At Show Low, 4 p.m.
April 26 Estrella Foothills, 2 p.m.
April 30 Globe, 6:30 p.m.