Like most baseball players, Hunter Harold has dreamed of hitting a game-winning home run.
On Tuesday night, the Payson High School junior wrote the latest chapter in a fantasy season for the Longhorns.
The first baseman crushed a hanging curveball deep into the chilly Payson night sky for a three-run homer that powered the Longhorns to a thrilling 10-9 come-from-behind victory over Show Low, wrapping up the 3A East Region Championship.
The Longhorns are 8-0 in the region with two games remaining. Snowflake and Winslow are tied for second at 5-3. The worst record Payson can finish with is 8-2.
But if the Longhorns keep performing the way they have all season, a 10-0 3A East record is a very real possibility.
The Horns have shown a flair for the dramatic this season and an ability to come from behind.
They rallied from a three-run deficit for a 6-5 walk-off victory over visiting Snowflake in their previous game four days earlier.
They found themselves in a dire situation once again as Show Low carried a 9-6 lead into the bottom of the sixth Tuesday.
But Harold’s second home run of the season capped a four-run inning that put the Longhorns ahead.
He blasted the 1-0 pitch over the left-center field fence to secure Payson’s second outright regional championship in three years.
“It was just a great shot for Hunter,” said Payson coach Brian Young. “That is one of the most clutch hits we have had all year.”
Harold said he’s just one of the guys trying to do his part. The dinger wouldn’t have meant much if others ahead of him hadn’t reached base, he said.
“You just go up there and try to do something for the team,” he said. “It’s everyone getting a hit — a chain reaction like Jesse (Conway) said a while back.”
The Longhorns should be celebrating a third consecutive title after tying Holbrook and Show Low at the top of the 3A East standings a year ago. However, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has a long list of tiebreaking procedures designed to make sure teams don’t tie, so Holbrook was awarded the region crown based on going 3-1 against the other two teams. Payson split with both, but Holbrook’s 2-0 record against Show Low was the difference, in the AIA’s eyes.
“It is pretty exciting to win the region outright,” Young said. “Nobody liked sharing that last year and we had a goal to go out and win it this year.”
The Longhorns are 24-4 in region play the last three years. The only other team with a winning record in that time is Holbrook, at 15-13.
“We want to establish ourselves as the premier team coming out of the East,” Young said. “To do that you have to compete for the region title each year and I think we are at the point where we will be disappointed if we aren’t in the race until the end.”
Payson improved to 13-2 in power points games. The Longhorns moved up two spots to No. 2 in Thursday’s 3A state rankings. The top eight teams in the rankings earn a bye in the first-round of the 24-team state tournament. The higher the Longhorns finish in the final rankings, the better position they put themselves in for the state tournament bracket.
“We still have a lot to play for over the next three games,” Young said. “We would like to stay in the top four of the rankings and make sure we get the bye through the play-in round. Plus we have a big senior night game coming up Wednesday.”
Payson improved to 7-0 at home this season.
Payson hosts No. 7 Winslow at 6 p.m. Friday before finishing 3A East action at Blue Ridge at 3 p.m. Monday.
The Longhorns close the regular season at home with a non-region game against Chino Valley at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24.
On Tuesday, River Phillips had two hits, including a double, and drove in a run. RJ Butler singled and drove in one.
The Longhorns committed five errors.
The Cougars had 10 hits and four walks against starter Makoa Rich, who pitched the first 4 1/3 innings, and Phillips, who worked the final 2 2/3 to pick up the win. Only four of the Show Low runs were earned.
“Makoa got a lot of ground balls and we just didn’t back him up enough on those,” Young said. “He threw well and deserved a little better. River came in in a tough spot and got us through to the end.”
It was the kind of game good teams find a way to win.
“It was a little bit of an ugly win for us,” Young said. “We made a few too many defensive mistakes and walked in a couple of runs. Obviously those are things we don’t want to see happen but we had teammates pick each other up. Sometimes when you don’t play well defensively you need that offense and we got it tonight.”