Ask 3A softball coaches across this state for a list of the top high school programs in Arizona and you’ll hear them talk about Payson near the top of their lists.
For the last 15 years or so, the Longhorns have served as one of the premier teams in the 3A East.
And they’ve battled like few others for state glory.
And watched their dream of a state championship come up short four times.
Payson finished second this past season for the fourth time in the last seven state tournaments. Will Dunman guided the Longhorns to the state semifinals in 2012 and 2013 before stepping down and Kadi Tenney took over and led Payson to the state title game for the first time in 2014.
Curtis Johnson, who coached the Longhorns to their first state semifinal appearance in his first year as head coach in 2006 before resigning for personal reasons early the next year, returned as assistant coach in 2014, then as head coach in 2015 and guided the Longhorns to the title game again with a 34-2 record. His Longhorns were back in the title game for the third straight year in 2016.
Injuries to key players hurt both the 2015 and ’16 title bids.
After the 2020 tournament was canceled when the season ended early because of COVID-19 precautions, Payson returned to the championship game this year and came up second for the fourth time in four appearances. Injuries again hurt the Longhorns.
Johnson led three teams to second-place finishes in his seven full seasons as head coach.
His teams always battled for section/region supremacy. In his final six full seasons, he guided the Longhorns to two section crowns — 2015 and 2016.
He’s departing as the leader of the PHS softball program and plans to retire as a Farmers Insurance agent soon.
“I’ve had the agency for 19 years,” Johnson said. “My oldest daughter who’s been working with me for 10 years is taking it over.
“I’ve been coaching for 25 years, the majority of that at the travel ball level,” he said. “My wife, Jeri, and I are going to do some traveling. Because of that, I just cannot make the commitment that is required to keep the program at the high level that it is.
“I just can’t devote the time needed and I’ve never been interested in being a February 1st to May 1st coach. To keep the program competing at the high level, you’ve got to invest in it year round. And I just don’t have the time. I need to spend it with my wife and do some other things.”
Payson’s softball program has been one of the most successful of any PHS program in terms of winning games and getting deep into the state tournament over the last 15 years.
The Longhorns reached the playoffs in all seven of Johnson’s full seasons as head coach.
“I look at it as a very strong accomplishment,” he said. “The consistency over the seven years is probably something we can take pride in. The last seven years, the lowest we finished in the power rankings was ninth and were were first in the state several times and at least in the top four or five several times.”
He sent several players on to play college softball, some for Division I programs. Several years ago, he incorporated a wristband system for calling plays, which has cut down on missed calls.
He said the success wasn’t all him.
“You’re silly if you think you can do everything by yourself,” he said. “I’ve had a bunch of great assistants but it’s not just the assistants, it’s the parents, too. The parents did a better job of fundraising than I did coaching. It took everybody.”
That includes community support from businesses, which have helped improve the softball complex since Johnson took over.
“It’s the old adage, leave the campsite better than you found it.”