Thrilling comeback wins and heartbreakers.
It’s been an emotional season for Payson High’s softball team.
Fortunately, the high times have far outweighed the low this spring.
The Longhorns carry a 15-4 record and No. 3 seed into the 3A state tournament.
Payson’s only losses heading into the regular-season finale at Blue Ridge (4-2 loss) since opening the season with a 4-0 defeat at Camp Verde were a pair of gut-wrenching setbacks to region rivals Show Low and Winslow. They lost to both by one run. But they also displayed their grit, their heart and their talent in beating both rivals by a single run, splitting the two games with each.
They would have won the 3A East Championship if they could have won at Blue Ridge but wound up second with a 7-3 record, one game back of Winslow (8-2).
By earning the No. 3 seed, the Longhorns are one of eight teams earning automatic berths into the 16-team state tournament at Rose Mofford Softball Complex in Phoenix. They play at 1 p.m. Saturday in a first-round game against No. 14 Tucson Pusch Ridge, which was one teams ranked Nos. 9-24 that faced a play-in game on Wednesday. Pusch Ridge, which was ranked 17 entering Wednesday, beat No. 16 Chino Valley 19-5.
Reaching the state tournament for a 10th straight season wasn’t a certainty for a young team returning just five starters and with just three seniors healthy enough to play.
Stormy weather plagued the team for the first few weeks of the season, forcing them to practice indoors many days and postpone some games.
“We have a bunch of new starters so we had to work through it a little bit in the beginning,” said senior first baseman Mercedes Miranda. “We were putting something special together. Everyone’s working well together and it’s really fun having to back up Raci in the circle because she’s doing a great job.”
That’s Raci Miranda, her younger sister. The second-year varsity starter doesn’t play like a sophomore in her first season as the team’s pitching ace. No, she’s simply one of the best players in the state both in the circle and at the plate. Her pitching has keyed the Longhorns’ strong season. She leads all 3A pitchers in strikeouts.
A team already relying heavily on first-year starters has had to even more following late-season injuries to junior catcher Chanci Landress and junior third baseman Julia Sisson. It’s unclear how long the two will be out, but their absences are a blow to a program that just seems to have little luck staying healthy for the state tournament.
Kara Percell has taken over for Landress behind the plate and Rebekah Rice for Sisson at the hot corner and both have performed well.
But that’s not really unexpected for a team with a roster full of contributors just hoping for a chance to do their part.
“We’re made up of different personalities, but when we come onto the field together we’re just the one team and we’re not different people,” said senior shortstop Olivia Foster. “We pick each other up if something happens.”
Senior outfielder Makyla Hill is happy to be a part of this team after missing the previous two years because of injury. She said it took some time to figure out just what kind of team she was on.
“I was a little hesitant at the beginning of the season, but as we progressed through games we kind came together and formed one big team,” Hill said. “I am confident that we’re going to go far.”
The team’s fourth senior, Ashley Nunez, is forced to watch from the bench after a knee injury ended her season on one of the first days of practice. She was hoping for a healthy year at second base after an ankle injury kept her out the second half of last year on the JV team.
“Yeah, it’s a big disappointment to miss my senior year,” Nunez said. “But I definitely have faith in my team and I love how they’re just striving to do their best and never give up.”
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