VBL National Anthem

Payson varsity volleyball players stand for the National Anthem prior to Tuesday’s season opener against visiting Chino Valley. Facemasks are required for players when not actively playing.

Masks and social distancing recommendations designed to minimize the spread of COVID-19 couldn’t prevent the crowd in Wilson Dome on Tuesday night from catching a different virus.

The estimated 130 Payson fans on hand displayed symptoms of Longhorn Fever as they headed to the parking lot after watching Payson’s varsity volleyball roll over visiting Chino Valley 25-12, 25-17, 25-11 in the season opener.

Longhorn Fever may not be as deadly as the pandemic that’s altered life across the globe for the past seven months, but it’s just as catchy in Rim Country, leading to hoarse voices from plenty of cheering, sore palms from excessive clapping and sore cheeks from nearly constant smiling.

Rocky road

It’s just the start of the season and the road will get rockier starting with the first of two meetings with Fountain Hills tonight on the road. They face off again in Payson on Oct. 21. The Falcons have won two 3A state championships in the last four years (2016 and '17)

The Longhorns return home at 6 p.m. Monday to face a Mogollon team that’s reached the 1A state title match the past four years, winning it all in 2018. That game opens a busy week that tips off with 3A East Region action at home against Holbrook on Wednesday and at Winslow on Thursday.

Payson athletic director Rich Ormand said only home fans will be admitted to games this season to minimize the spread of COVID-19 from one community to another.

Snowflake and Blue Ridge

The Longhorns host a non-region game against Camp Verde on Oct. 5 then face the two schools that have dominated the 3A East the past three years in back-to-back outings.

Blue Ridge visits Wilson Dome on Oct. 6 and the Longhorns travel to take on Snowflake on Oct. 13. Payson also plays at Blue Ridge on Oct. 22, and Snowflake comes to Payson on Oct. 29.

Snowflake has gone 49-2 in region/section play in the last five years.

Those only two losses both came against Payson in 2016, which marks the only season in the past five years that the Lobos didn’t claim a region/section title.

Snowflake won the Div. 3 Section 5 championship in 2015 and has gone 30-0 in winning the last three 3A East titles.

The Lobos are the only region team that Blue Ridge hasn’t been able to beat the past three seasons. The Yellow Jackets are 24-0 in 3A East games the last three years against everyone but Snowflake, a team they’ve lost all six games against.

The Longhorns have gone 0-6 against both Snowflake and Blue Ridge in region play the past three seasons after sweeping the Lobos and splitting with Blue Ridge in going 9-1 to win the 2016 3A East crown.

Karen Hargrove has taken over as Snowflake’s head coach after 17 seasons as Alan Ramage’s assistant. Ramage stepped down after last season to become a juvenile probation officer for Navajo County.

Getting into the groove

Senior middle hitter/blocker Alex Hagan was happy with how things went in game one. Teams with high expectations like the Longhorns sometimes have trouble playing to their potential against teams with lower expectations.

“We have a lot of new seniors on the team and a lot of seniors and it was really good to see us come together and compete at such a high level,” she said. “Sometimes we start off slower than we’d like to, but as we progress we get in our groove and keep going, keep pushing. And once we keep on getting excitement like kills, blocks, passes, everything, our momentum just builds.”

The Longhorns hope to improve on last year, when they earned the No. 23 seed (24 make it) for the play-in game and upset No. 10 Queen Creek American Leadership Academy before falling to No. 1 Chandler Valley Christian in the Round of 16 (first round).

“We’ve been to the first round, but we got knocked out, so we’re going to go further this year,” Hagan said. “We have a great team and I’m so excited.”

From softball sad to volleyball glad

Sophomore outside/right side hitter Chancie Deaton couldn’t be more thrilled to return to competition after she saw the softball season end just as it was starting in March. She was a freshman shortstop on the PHS varsity. She’s a second-year varsity volleyball player.

“It made me sad because I felt like we had a good team,” she said of the premature end to softball. “It was disappointing. It makes me really happy to know we’ll at least have the volleyball season. It was fun tonight. I think we’re pretty good. We just have a tight team. Everyone connects really well.”

A different season

COVID-19 has already made things different this season and maybe the Longhorns can keep the changes coming and improve on their recent struggles against Snowflake, Blue Ridge and others.

And maybe Longhorn Fever infects more people as the season goes on.

Contact the reporter at kmorris@payson.com

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