Next fall, the Rim country's loss will be Northern Arizona University's gain when one of the greatest athletes in PHS history discards her well-worn purple and gold for the new blue of a Lady Lumberjack.
After a short recruiting period and a visit to the Flagstaff campus of NAU in February, senior Stephanie Robertson last week gave a verbal okay to the school, indicating she would accept an athletic scholarship in track and field.
Due to NCAA regulations which govern player signings, she cannot sign an official letter of intent offer until mid-April. The statement of intent will bind her to the scholarship.
Robertson said accepting the offer from the Lumberjacks was an easy decision for a variety of reasons: the quality of the coaching staff, the school's proximity to Payson and the opportunity to become a nationally ranked college athlete.
"My coaches (Chuck Hardt and Dan Reid) say the school has really a good (track and field) program and they think it will be a great opportunity for me," she said. "I was impressed and kind of wanted to stay close to home."
For the past three years, Robertson has led PHS teams to postseason honors in volleyball, basketball and track and field.
But at Northern Arizona, she will compete year-round only in the heptathlon.
Much to the chagrin of those who have marveled at her exploits in volleyball and basketball, those endeavors are now only high school memories.
In college, Robertson said, "they have both an indoor and outdoor season, so I won't have time for any other sports."
At Northern Arizona, coaches Darcy Ahner and Ron Mann will continue molding Robertson's talents as much as her Payson coaches did.
"I'm looking forward to working with the NAU coaches. They're excellent, but I'll miss my coaches here," she said. "They've done so much for me. I can't thank them enough for all the time they've given up for me."
Hardt said he's confident his charge will continue to experience success on the college level. "No one works harder and she has a deep commitment to excel," he said.
Academically, Robertson is unsure of her college major but is leaning towards the medical field. "Maybe a physician's assistant or medical administration -- something like that," she said.
An accomplished career
Few athletes at Payson High School have enjoyed such athletic success as Robertson.
In volleyball, she played only one varsity season -- as a senior -- but quickly earned a starting position as the team's middle hitter. At season's end she was chosen All-Central Division First Team, All-Arizona Honorable Mention and a participant in the Arizona Coaches' Association North vs. South All-Star game.
On the basketball court, she was the Horns' leading scorer and go-to player. An ankle injury slowed her early season progress, but she recovered in time to lead the team to the state quarterfinals, before the squad was eliminated by eventual state champion Monument Valley.
Robertson also took a brief turn at girls' soccer when it debuted at PHS in 1998 and was a varsity letter winner.
Her exploits left little doubt she was one of the state's best in both volleyball and basketball, but it was the heptathlon that earned her national attention and a college scholarship.
Strolling down memory lane, she remembers her interest in the heptathlon was first piqued as a freshman at Camp Verde High School.
"My coach there told me I was a good all-around athlete and should try it," she says. "But, I never had the opportunity there."
After departing Camp Verde at the end of her freshman year, Robertson transferred to Payson High where she continued her love affair with track and field.
Even at PHS, competing in the heptathlon presented problems early on for Robertson and her coaches. Because the event requires two days to complete, it is contested in only one Arizona high school regular-season meet -- the Glendale Invitational held annually in mid-April.
In 1997, only months before the Glendale meet, Robertson muddled the possibility of participating in her first heptathlon with the PHS coaches.
"Go for it," Reid and Hardt responded. They were probably unaware they were nurturing seeds of interest in a youngster who would go on to become one of the best heptathletes in Arizona high school history.
In her initial try at Glendale, Robertson easily won the gold medal, accumulating a respectable 3,962 points.
But the mark was well shy of the invitational record of 4,207 points set in 1992 by Tolleson's Adra Hysong.
In the spring of 1998 and the Glendale meet again on the horizon, Robertson stepped up her training regime, hoping to challenge Hysong's mark. Publicly, she stated boldly that she wanted the record.
As a gifted athlete, Robertson had long been able to hurdle, run and jump. Those events came naturally, but among the heptathlon's seven requirements was a unique challenge totally alien to her -- the javelin throw.
Much of the practice time leading up to her second Glendale visit was spent mastering the techniques and nuances of the event. As frustrating as the sessions were, the dedication quickly yielded gold-medal rewards.
At Glendale, she faced another heralded, three-sport star in Jody Smith of St. Johns.
Seldom in Arizona Class 3A high school sports do athletes as talented as Robertson and Smith come along in the same four-year period. Athletes of their caliber are as rare as winning lottery tickets.
As the much-anticipated heptathlon battle between Smith and Robertson unfolded at Glendale, the Redskin stalwart jumped out early on the scoreboard and led most of the first day. A first-place finish in 100-meter hurdles and a second-place in the 200-meter dash stamped Smith the favorite.
Robertson, however, was never far behind in the point totals.
In the second-to-last event, the javelin, Robertson unleashed a personal best, silver-medal throw of 93 feet 8 inches, that yielded 449 heptathlon points.
Because Smith had only thrown 79 feet, 11 inches, her tally was just 370.
The point differential lifted Robertson past Smith in the standings, with one event remaining to be contested.
Like two gunfighters set to shoot it out, Robertson and Smith squared off in the 800-meter run.
Knowing her back was against the Glendale wall, Robertson turned aside the rigors of two days of competition in the desert heat and sped to a first-place finish in a sizzling 2:27.70.
The victory brought Robertson her second consecutive Glendale title and produced the points she needed to shatter Hysong's standard.
With 4,379 points, Robertson will enter the 1999 Glendale Invitational April 16 and 17 as the record holder.
Smith went on to finish as runner-up last year but also broke Hysong's mark with 4,213 points.
As gleaming as Robertson's accomplishments seemed at the time, the personal best point total didn't stand up long. One month later, at the Great Southwest Track and Field meet held at Arizona State University, she accumulated 4,546 points and was second to a Texas high school athlete.
Because of her finishes at Glendale, in the Great Southwest and summer Junior Olympic frays, Robertson earned a top-10 national ranking. Those rankings have since expired and 1999 versions will be compiled soon.
Her new ranking will depend greatly on her showing at the upcoming Glendale meet since it will be her first competition this season.
Robertson says her goal at Glendale and during Junior Olympic events this summer will be to add a few hundred points to her personal best and qualify for the National Championships in Omaha, Neb.
"Then, I'm ready for college," she says.
Team spark plug
Before she can concentrate on the Junior Olympics and summer competition, Robertson is now focusing on helping Payson High retain the Central Division championship it earned last year. She then wants to be a part of the team's quest to win the Class 3A state crown.
In the divisional finals to be held May 7 and 8 at Arizona Boys Ranch, she will be out to defend several titles she captured at last year's championships when she turned in a perfect track and field performance, winning four gold medals and 56 team points.
At meet's end, it was no surprise to anyone that she was crowned "Outstanding Female Athlete."
Her golds came in the 110-meter high hurdles (15.67), long jump (16 feet, 1 inch), 300-low hurdles (46.08) and the high jump (5 feet, 2 inches).
Barring any injury, Lady Horn performances in the Central and state meets will undoubtedly have "Stephanie Robertson" written all over them.
But that's understandable -- for three years she's been doing just that and more.