That’s all that remains between the Payson High softball team and the first state championship in program history.
The Longhorns have been here before, of course.
This is the third consecutive season that PHS has advanced to the Division 3 state semifinals. The Horns set a school record for wins two years ago before bowing out with a 28-4 record thanks to a 7-2 semifinal loss to eventual champion Phoenix Bourgade Catholic. They broke that mark by going 29-5 last year. But they weren’t celebrating after Winslow eliminated them 14-4 in the semifinals.
The Longhorns have never reached the state title game. They’ll do their best to change that tonight when the tournament’s top seed faces No. 4 Snowflake (24-10) at 5:30 p.m. at Rose Mofford Sports Complex in Phoenix. If they succeed, they’ll meet the winner of tonight’s late game between No. 2 Winslow (28-1) and No. 14 Benson (23-8), which is set for 7:30. The final game is scheduled for 7:45 p.m. Saturday.
A win tonight ties this 28-8 squad for the single-season victory record. And another win on Saturday breaks that record.
But, in the long run, the win tally doesn’t measure the season. Records come and go — but championships endure. Nobody can ever do better than to win the state championship. And that’s what two more wins will make these girls — champs.
They may just be ready to ascend to the throne. Payson won the Section 5 championship. The top five seeds in this tournament were Section 5 teams and three of the four remaining teams are from Section 5.
But Winslow’s Bulldogs can make a great case for being just as ready to claim the crown. Winslow has reached the final game the past five seasons — with just one championship in 2010 to show for it. That’s four seasons ending in heartbreak at the gates of the castle, including three in a row.
It’s the matchup most have expected since the tournament began, the top two seeds squaring off with the championship hanging in the balance.
It may very well turn out that way. If so, the Bulldogs will be motivated to avenge the 2-0 April 8 regular-season loss at Payson that earned the Longhorns the section championship and put the only blemish on Winslow’s record. The Bulldogs certainly got their taste of blood last year when they beat PHS in the only game that mattered after the Horns beat them in the Gracie Haught Classic earlier in the season.
But Winslow nearly didn’t get past its first playoff opponent a week ago as No. 15 Nogales almost pulled one of the biggest upsets in tournament history before Winslow escaped the second-round game with a 9-8 win in 11 innings. The Bulldogs went on to eliminate No. 7 Tucson Empire 9-4 in the quarterfinals.
Benson beat No. 19 Round Valley 13-8 in the first round then stunned No. 3 Show Low 7-6 in the second round before sending No. 6 Tanque Verde packing 7-2 in the quarterfinals.
Just as they’re familiar with Winslow, PHS is also no stranger to facing Snowflake, another Section 5 team. The Longhorns beat the Lobos 8-0 in the Wickenburg Wrangler Classic on March 8 and 8-4 in the Section 5 game at Snowflake on March 25. Snowflake did manage to beat Payson 8-0 in the Gracie Haught Classic on March 22. Of course you can throw that out since the Horns were missing four starters in that event, where they went 2-5.
The Lobos needed eight innings to slip by No. 5 Lakeside Blue Ridge 2-1 in the quarterfinals after knocking off No. 20 Thatcher 10-3 in the second round.
Div. 3 State Softball Tournament
At Rose Mofford Sports Complex
Friday, May 16
No. 1 Payson vs. No. 4 Snowflake, 5:30 p.m.
No. 2 Winslow vs. No. 14 Benson, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 17