These Longhorns know all about tests.
They’ve taken them throughout their lives as students.
And they’ve passed a few more on the baseball field this spring. The third-seeded Longhorns will look to keep the season going when they compete in the 3A State Championship first-round game against No. 14 Fountain Hills at Surprise Baseball Complex at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. The winner plays the winner of the game between No. 6 Sabino and No. 11 Gilbert Christian in the quarterfinals at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
When the circumstances seem dire, players on many teams sort of wilt and fold. “It’s just not our day,” they think.
Understandable. It’s hard to dig out of a hole.
But Payson players never seem to give up and surrender.
The Longhorns closed the season by rallying for a 5-4 eight-inning victory over Chino Valley on April 24 to finish the regular season 18-7 overall and 15-3 in the power points games that figure in the rankings and in seeding the state tournament bracket.
It was their fourth one-run triumph of the season. Three of them occurred in the final five games.
The previous walk-off thriller came eight days earlier on April 16 when Harold Hunter belted a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh to lift the Longhorns to a 10-9 triumph over Show Low that clinched the Longhorns’ second outright 3A East Region championship in three years. Payson shared the region title with Holbrook and Show Low in 2018.
Harold also belted a three-run homer to cut a 4-0 deficit against Chino Valley to one run and helped set up RJ Butler’s RBI single in the bottom of the eighth that ended the regular season on a high note.
These players just seem to thrive in pressure situations.
“I think there is a toughness in this team, sometimes we don’t always have,” said Payson coach Brian Young. “They seem to really bear down when they need to. They aren’t intimidated by any situation and can really dig deep. Toughness is definitely our top characteristic.”
This roster is loaded with players boasting at least a couple of years of varsity experience. Six seniors are key.
One of them, Butler, delivered three game-winning walk-off hits at home to help Payson finish 10-0 on its home field.
But several juniors have played big roles with clutch hits, no more so than Harold. Classmates Jesse Conway and River Phillips have also come up big at the plate, on the mound and in the field.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this season is that the Longhorns keep winning despite a shoulder injury to pitching ace Kevin Cerna, who hasn’t pitched in weeks. His status for the state tournament is unclear. However, he’s been able to serve as designated hitter since his injury.