Riding high upon strong showings in last year's Central Division and Class 3A state championships, the Payson High School track and field teams are working their way through arduous preseason drills fueled by lofty aspirations for even more honors.
In 1998, the Lady Horns were a smashing hit on the prep track circuit, winning the Central Division championship and finishing third at the state meet.
The boys' team was not quite as successful, but did manage a runner-up finish in the Central finals.
The nemesis of the boys' team all season long was highly talented Arizona Boys Ranch, which owned a stable of sprinters that would turn a college-level coach green with envy.
The Spartan corral might not house as many stallions this year. Due to legal problems and a dwindling enrollment, the Spartans won't have a full student body to draw from this spring, unless something unforeseen happens and the sinking ABR administrative ship rights itself and more students are sent to the reform school.
But a lot hinges on the judicial system and state licensing agencies, which could take months or years.
PHS coach Chuck Hardt says he still considers the three-time defending state champions a title threat until the team is whipped fair and square on the track and not in the courts.
Also in the Central Division, Hardt predicts Fountain Hills will make a run at the crown.
In the state finals, he says, Safford might be the team to beat.
Among the girls' teams, Hardt cautiously predicts Payson has the talent to repeat as the Central champion but will have to find ways to slip past Cactus Shadows and Fountain Hills to do so.
There's little doubt who the kingpin on the state level is. The Safford Lady Bulldogs have won a national record, 13 consecutive state titles, and will be a favorite to keep the streak alive.
The Bulldogs' best competition, Hardt says, should come from Payson and Round Valley.
Finding more ammo
Among the 32 boys out for the PHS team, Hardt must find replacements for several athletes who graduated last spring. Gone are Chris Pirch, Ben Plumb, Tom Rauh, Brandon Beeler, Glenn Elledge, Jake Sopeland, Eric Welnick and Carsen Wilkins.
Sopeland and Welnick will be particularly hard to replace in that both were division champions -- Sopeland in the pole vault and Welnick in the triple jump.
Plumb was a member of the 4x800 relay team that set a school record, and Rauh was a Central Division silver medalist in both the pole vault and 300 hurdles.
With 38 girls on the team this year, the girls' squad returns intact to defend its Central crown.
Who are these Lady Horns?
One of the chief reasons for the optimism in the Lady Horns camp is the presence of senior Stephanie Robertson.
Tall, talented and speedy, Robertson can compete in most any track event, and more often than not, she'll return with a medal. As a nationally ranked heptathlete, she can run the sprints, leg out the middle distances, succeed in the throws, soar in the high jump and battle the best in the hurdles.
In the 300 hurdles, she is the defending state champion. She took a silver in the 100 high hurdles. As a high jumper, she is the school's record-holder with a leap of 5 feet, 6 inches. She also holds the PHS long jump record of 16 feet, 10 inches.
Is there anything she can't do well?
Robertson's incredible versatility allows the PHS coaching staff to shift her in and out of events to help generate the most team points possible.
Regulation high school meets do not host her specialty -- the heptathlon -- because the event requires two days to complete. However, Robertson will have the opportunity to showcase her skills in the event at the Chandler Invitational on March 27 and the Glendale Invitational April 17.
In addition to Robertson, the Lady Horns return 16 other varsity-letter winners, among them talented sprinters/hurdlers/ jumpers Rheanna Martinez and Sara Schmidt. Martinez is the defending Central Division champ in the triple jump.
Freshman Samantha Ellsworth and junior Kristina Harper could contribute to the Horns cause in the sprints, coaches say.
In the middle- and long-distance events, the Lady Horns will field several veteran athletes who are threats for medals in most any 3A competition. They include Katrina Beeler, Amy Davis and Leighann Haynes. All picked up valuable experience in the cross-country season and are champing at the bit to show their wares in the spring.
Senior Shawn McCarty returns as the defending Central champ in the 800 meters.
Katie Langeliers, the daughter of sprints/hurdles coach Norm Langeliers, is also a track and field veteran in the middle distance events.
Others in the mix for starting honors include Stephanie Ray, Katie Smoyer, Bryn Wilkins, Brianna Marshall and Christina Hall, among others.
Pole vault and throws
The girls' pole vault is only in its third year of existence as a recognized event, but the Horns have a dandy in McCarty, who won the Central championship last year. With more experience, she should be even better this time around.
Also, the Horns have more depth than last year with Langeliers and freshman April Cheek working out in the event. Cheek says she's never vaulted but is anxiously looking forward to the challenge.
Throws coach Pete Greer and volunteer assistant Dan Sweitzer have long produced outstanding athletes that have gone on to collegiate careers. This year's group of athletes that will attempt to carry on the storied tradition includes Elysha Hummer, Glori Olson, Jocie Gressley, Carrie Garrett, Megan Disbrow and Robertson, when she's not elsewhere. The team also has five freshmen on the throws roster.
The boys' team
With former Payson High School sprint star Tim Ryden on hand as a volunteer coach, the sprinters and hurdlers have a warrior to call upon for valuable advice on the rigors of competition.
During last week's practices, Ryden -- a state champion sprinter for the Horns in 1990 -- dusted off his spikes and did a little running of his own.
"I'm sore, really sore," he said the following day, while guiding the athletes through practice sessions.
Among Ryden's projects for improvement will be juniors Meikle Garrett, Andrew Easton, David Shaw and Jeremy Conner.
As a senior, sprinter/jumper Josh Barnhardt is battle-tested and ready for his last shot at prep track.
In pre-season drills for the middle and long-distance runners, head coach Chuck Hardt and assistant Ellie Hardt have focused on improving both conditioning and speed of the candidates.
Seniors Kaare Wagner, Andy Pederson, Heath Boyle, Jerry Baker, Mike Sprinkle and Josh Olsson provide the experience. Jeremy Lee is a talented sophomore who could contribute.
In the jumps and vaults, the Horns will be relatively young, having lost both Sopeland and Rauh.
Coaches will look to uncover competent vaulters in a group that includes Aaron Dahir, Cole Newbold and Jerry Baker.
Football and basketball standout Jeremy Hoff will also try his hand at vaulting, as well as the high jump and triple jump.
Andrew Easton could be one of the team's best long- and triple-jumpers.
In the throws, senior Mike Barker is one of the team's best, but has been slowed while recovering from a dislocated elbow he suffered during the wrestling season.
Others vying for varsity honors include Ken Holcomb, Jared Wallace, Sterling White and Hoff.
Season tips off
The 1999 season opens Wednesday in Winslow. The meet will be a five-way affair with Snowflake, Holbrook, Blue Ridge, Payson and the homestanding Bulldogs participating.
The Horns will have the opportunity to see first-hand if Arizona Boys Ranch can survive its legal woes on Saturday at the Spartan Invitational on the ABR campus in Queen Creek. The meet begins at 11 a.m.