A roster featuring just two returning starters and two seniors left the chances of Payson High School’s golf team qualifying for the state tournament for a third consecutive year in question.
Only 15 of the 60 schools that play spring golf in Arizona qualify.
But the young Longhorns fought all season to get in and earned the 15th and final berth in the 36-hole Division 3 state tournament at Omni Tucson National on May 7-8. It’s the third consecutive season they’ve qualified as a team.
And they closed with a strong showing on the challenging course, moving up two places to finish 13th.
Senior Rayce Mathews and sophomore Colton Justice led the way this season. Both qualified as individuals, as well.
Mathews, who also qualified individually as a freshman, ended his prep career with his best state tournament performance. After a strong season in which he finished with the best Section 1 average for the fourth consecutive season, according to coach Randy Mathews, he shot 10-over par 79-77—156 to tie for ninth.
The showing earned him all-state honors and led Payson to a 156-over par 375-365—740 total.
In 2018, Mathews finished tied for 27th shooting 79-84—163 on the same course to lead Payson to a 10th place team finish (690). As a sophomore in 2017 at Randolph Dell Urich/North, Mathews finished tied for 16th (70-77—147) to lead the Longhorns to 15th place (699). As a freshman in 2016 at Antelope Hills in Prescott, Mathews finished 17th (152) as an individual qualifier.
His eight-round state tournament average ranks second among Payson golfers over the last 20 years only to Dean Harpe, according to coach Mathews. Rayce Mathews will continue his golf career at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.
Justice tied for 40th (94-82—176), junior Katie Sexton finished 74th (98-102—200), sophomore Emme Sopeland tied for 77th (104-104—208) and senior Zane Bartlett finished 89th (120-116—236).
Justice finished 54th (178) as a freshman last year.
“We couldn’t have been happier to reach the finals,” said Randy Mathews. “It was a big leap to get to the tournament.”
The Longhorns were 10th in the standings through 17 holes on the Catalina Course in the opening round. Mathews made a great up and down for par to finish his day, but the 18th hole proved disastrous for every other Longhorn as Payson shot 18-over par on the hole as a team to fall to 12th, just seven shots out of 10th. Justice was playing well but hit three balls into the water and actually made a great “9,” according to his coach.
Sexton, too, had trouble with the water and also carded a 9. Sopeland had a chance for her best round of the season but hit two in the water and two more in the sand to shoot 12.
Although they played better in the final round, they couldn’t move back up in the standings, finishing just two shots back of 11th place.
Along with Mathews, who led the Longhorns in most matches, and Justice, who led the team in some matches and turned in a solid season, they needed others to step up. And they got that.
“Emme stepped up huge,” the coach said. “She was tremendously dependable to break 50 on almost any course we played.
“And Katie pitched in some of her best scores toward the end of the season and really helped with scoring.
“(Junior) Cyle Moss hit his season low round in the crucial matches in late April and Zane stepped in when Cyle had some personal problems that affected his game.”
James Mackie shot 1-under par 76-69—145 to win his second individual state championship and lead Chandler Valley Christian to its sixth team title in seven years. The Trojans shot 48-over par 320-312—632. Snowflake finished second (336-324—660).
Scottsdale Prep sophomore Davis Johnson (76-73—149) finished second, four strokes back of Mackie. Yuma Catholic junior Alexandria Schmunk finished third for the second straight year at 73-78—151. She carried a two-stroke lead over Thatcher’s Caleb Scarlett into the final 18-hole round as she tried to become just the second girl to win the individual spring state championship.
The only other girl to win the individual crown was Goodyear Estrella Foothills’ Sarah Freeman in 2007.