"It doesn't get any better than this," Barry Smith, Payson High School's athletic director, said after learning that the school received, for the first time ever, the prestigious Don F. Stone Award.
Given annually since 1964 by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the Stone award honors a single Class 2A or 3A school for overall excellence in extracurricular activities.
In front of a cheering student body Friday morning in the PHS auditorium, Smith went public for the first time revealing Payson High had won the award. Wrestling coach Dennis Pirch wrapped up the assembly with a spirited speech congratulating the senior class for leading the school to the honor.
Pirch also challenged the underclassmen, including the Rim Country Middle School eighth-graders, to continue the legacy of excellence the seniors had begun. It's not enough to attend classes, the nationally acclaimed coach said; students should try to give something back to school and the community by becoming involved in extracurricular activities.
"You'll be better for it," he promised.
Retiring Superintendent Russ Kinzer, who has been in the district for 21 years said, "The award is a tribute to the quality of students we have, to the caring of the staff and the positive direction from the school board."
In selecting a winner for the Stone Award, Arizona high schools -- of which there are about 70 in the 2A and 3A conference -- receive points based on a system outlined in the Arizona Interscholastic Association bylaws. Earning a state athletic championship is worth 16 points, state runners-up receive eight points and division champions four. Points are also give for proper game management and sportsman-like conduct throughout the school year.
In music, points are given for superior ratings at the solo and ensemble regional music awards.
Sweepstakes winners in speech earn 10 points, runners-up receive five, and each district or division winner gets two points.
Points can also be deducted for incidents that require corrective action or school reports that are sent late to the AIA. Any school placed on warning or probation is not eligible for the overall excellence award.
AIA official Dick Stuart would not reveal how many points Payson High accumulated in winning the award but did congratulate the school on turning in a banner year.
"It's kind of obvious we must have had a lot of points; look at the kind of year we had," Smith said.
During the 1998-99 campaign, Longhorn teams won state championships in football, wrestling, baseball and girls' track and field. The band earned a "superior" rating at state, the speech and debate team won state honors and advanced to the nationals, and the drama club earned an excellent rating at the state thespian competition. The drama group also produced its first major musical in 15 years -- "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
The school also did not have any incidents that required deduction of points, Stuart said.
Last year, Sahuarita wrestled the Stone award from the clutches of Safford who had won the honor six of the previous seven years.
Since the inception of the award, Safford has won 10 times.
Only Tucson's Canyon del Oro, now a 5A school, could rival Safford's dominance, winning the Stone six consecutive years in the late 1970s.
The award is named in honor of Don F. Stone, a former West Phoenix High School principal, who in the 1950s was the executive director of the AIA.
In the 5A conference, a citation similar to the Stone is given in honor of the AIA's first executive director, H.A. Hendrickson.
At the onset of the 1999-2000 school year, AIA officials will present to Smith and the student body a banner commemorating the overall excellence award. That banner, Smith said, will probably be displayed in Wilson Dome alongside the other championship banners that grace the walls of the building.
Also, the school receives a traveling trophy that is kept in the possession of the winning institution for one year.
Hopefully, Smith said, the trophy will remain in Wilson Dome for years to come.