You can’t count on many things.
But the likelihood of Payson’s softball team qualifying for the state tournament keeps climbing higher up the list of things you can almost guarantee.
The Longhorns went 15-4 this season to earn a 10th consecutive postseason berth.
On Saturday, at Rose Mofford Softball Complex in Phoenix, Payson, which earned the No. 3 seed, begins pursuit of the first state championship in program history with a first round game against 14th seeded Tucson Pusch Ridge at 1 p.m.
They’ve come close several times in their previous nine tournament appearances, but just haven’t been able to claim the ultimate prize. They reached the Division 3 championship game three years in a row from 2014-16, but came up short each time.
One thing all 10 playoff teams have in common: dominant pitching. It started with Arianna, Arissa and Aubrielle Paulson and continued with Kalea Smith and now Raci Miranda. The sophomore leads all 3A pitchers in strikeouts and can dominate in the circle.
You’ll find an overwhelming majority of championship softball teams over the years feature a pitcher who simply overpowers hitters. It’s pretty much a prerequisite.
So this team is good to go in that department.
But in Smith, last year’s team had the same thing. She she dominated Sahuarita in the opening round in a game Payson would normally have won. The Longhorns were the better team. They earned the No. 6 seed. Sahuarita was No. 11. But Payson committed at least eight errors and lost 4-2 in eight innings. That’s very uncharacteristic for the Longhorns.
Sahuarita went on to win the state championship.
Last year’s Payson team had lots of seniors, so it was difficult to understand.
Strong pitching alone doesn’t win championships. Sahuarita’s pitcher wasn’t nearly as good as Smith. But the Mustang defenders played well behind her and that was enough to help them escape their most difficult game. They went on to beat Show Low by eight runs, Empire by 10 and Winslow by six.
So this year’s team has the kind of pitching that can lead to a championship. But they’ll need to be sound in the field and hit the ball to avoid a third consecutive first-round exit from the tournament.
Every player on the roster needs to continue to do her job. With only three seniors starting and the status of junior starters Chanci Landress and Julia Sisson in doubt due to injury, younger players must continue to step up for the team to make its first deep tournament run since 2016.
Payson stood at No. 3 in the 3A rankings before a 4-2 loss at Blue Ridge cost them the 3A East Region Championship. They wound up finishing second to top-ranked Winslow.
The 3A East is the most competitive region in the state. The top eight teams in the final rankings that earned automatic berths in the 16-team state tournament included five 3A East teams — Payson, Winslow, Snowflake, Show Low and Blue Ridge. The seedings for the state tournament indication how much better the 3A East than any other region in the state. All five 3A East teams in the tournament are among the top six seeds, with Winslow one, Payson three, Snowflake four, Show Low five and Blue Ridge six. The only team from a different region in the top six is No. 2 Mohave Valley River Valley.
If the Longhorns had won that Blue Ridge game or either one of a pair of one-run losses to Winslow and Show Low in games they led, the Horns would have walked away as champions of the best region in the state. And they beat Winslow, Show Low and Blue Ridge in their other region faceoffs.
There simply is no better proving ground for state tournament readiness than the 3A East. And these girls have proved they can beat anyone.
So the Longhorns may enter the tournament behind a couple of teams in the rankings, but they know they can beat anyone.
Now, they find themselves four wins from doing what no Payson softball team has ever done — win a state championship.
If they win on Saturday, they’ll advance to the quarterfinals at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 3 at Rose Mofford against the winner of the first-round game between Blue Ridge and No. 11 Yuma Catholic. The semifinals are at 11 a.m. on May 4 and the final is at 7:45 p.m. on May 6 at ASU’s Farrington Stadium.