Long-distance running is often a thankless, unheralded sport in which only a select few athletes participate.
But since the inception of the cross country program at Payson High School seven years ago, coach Chuck Hardt has been able to sell his program to a solid corps of high school youngsters.
Cross country, the coach tells the fledgling athletes, is an excellent option for those who choose not to participate in the other fall sports of football, soccer and volleyball.
Also, Hardt says, cross country serves as a excellent conditioning tool for those going on to participate in winter and spring sports.
Hardt's coaching philosophy has long paid dividends as evidenced by Longhorns' strong postseason performances in past divisional and state meets.
In 1997, the Lady Horn runners emerged from the Central pack as the division's team champions. The girls -- who have never failed to qualify for the state meet -- went on to finish sixth at the state championships.
The boys' team ran to a silver medal in the Central Division meet but fell to 12th at state, partially due to the absence of ace Heath Boyle, who was ill and did not participate.
Boyle graduated in May, as did former team members Kaare Wagner, Mike Sprinkle, Andy Pederson and Carlos Soto.
The Lady Horns lost the services of Bryn Wilkins, Misti Dorris, Cassie Smith and Elysha Hummer to graduation.
Throughout preseason drills, which began in earnest Aug. 9, Hardt -- the boys' and girls' lone coach -- has been assessing the talents and potential of the current crop of runners, trying to find replacements for the graduated seniors.
The Lady Horns could find themselves in good stead once the regular season rolls around Sept. 4 at the Peaks Invitational in Flagstaff.
Senior Stephanie Ray returns to the PHS fold as a top-notch runner who could turn into the team ace, based on her performances last season.
Ray will have plenty of runners to push her in practice with the emergence of Leighann Haynes and Amy Davis. Haynes and Davis were frequently top-10 finishers in varsity meets last year as freshmen.
Senior Lyndsey Heizer also is an experienced high school runner who will lend depth to the Horn cause. Others returning include Mary Mendoza, Samantha Meyers and Katrina Beeler.
Several newcomers have shown the potential to become valuable jayvee and varsity runners. They include Michelle Closs, Rachelle McGee, Shalyn McGee, Cassandra McNac, Sara Sieverson, Kira Tiffany, Shaina Vaught and Shea Scott.
If the boys' team has a leader on the roster, it might be hard-working senior Joe Sanchez. He may be on the verge of his best season ever after playing a journeyman role the past three years.
Supplementing the efforts of Sanchez will be seasoned performers Jerry Baker, Jeremy Lee and Wes Sprinkle. All could exhibit the moxie it takes to succeed in the sport, Hardt says.
Cole Newbold is also vying for a team position, as is freshman Josh Sprinkle.
Transfer Matt Christener, a sophomore, might provide some pleasant surprises. "He's young, but (he) came out of a very successful program in Ohio," Hardt said.
Last spring's Arizona Interscholastic Association-mandated realignment of Payson from the Central to the East Division will not greatly impact the Horn cross country teams until the running of the divisional tournament Oct. 30 in Whiteriver.
There, both the boys and girls will go head-to-head against traditionally tough reservation runners representing Alchesay and Holbrook.
The Central didn't house any of the reservation schools that dominated the state meet last year.
After surveying the schedule when it was finalized two weeks ago, veteran members of the PHS teams could be excused for beginning a slow shiver at the sight of the Snowflake Invitational on the agenda for Oct. 30.
Hardt has tapped the annual meet the "blizzard race." Three years ago the event was contested during a snowstorm that was so fierce the competitors had to run backwards to avoid taking dime-sized hailstones face-first. Some finished with portions of their face frost-covered and almost frozen.
"We won't ever forget that race," Hardt said.
This year, the Horns have but two home meets. The first is slated for 2 p.m. Sept. 8 at Payson Golf Course. The other, the annual Sludge to the Judge homecoming run Oct. 8, will begin about noon on Main Street.
Anyone who would like to help the coach and school officials with the logistics of the meet --including traffic control and scorekeeping -- is asked to call Hardt at 474-5570.