Cross country runners traditionally face a myriad of challenges including uphill climbs, long arduous courses and lung-bursting sprints to the finish line.
Like all good prep teams, the Longhorns are conditioned for that kind of obstacles, but the Rim runners weren't prepared for the natural hazards they were warned to watch out for Sept. 29 at the Fountain Hills Invitational in McDowell Mountain Park.
"We were instructed to watch out for rattlesnakes and cactus," PHS coach Chuck Hardt said. "The course was very tough, by far the toughest course we have ever competed on."
In earlier years, the race site was at Fountain Hills Park, where a sparkling-clear water fountain spouts hundreds of feet into the air, marking the entrance to the community distinguished by million-dollar homes.
The event was moved to McDowell Mountain this year because of on-going construction in the FH park.
Despite the obstacles that also included near 100-degree desert heat, sophomore Lilly Flores turned in perhaps the best effort of her young running career, finishing second in a field of 58 runners.
Her time of 23:58 over the 3.2 mile course was only five seconds off the winning pace turned in by a Valley Christian runner.
Flores began this year's campaign as an unknown, but with each meet, she becomes a more seasoned, competitive athlete.
"She just continues to improve," Hardt said.
Flores' efforts fueled Payson to the invitational championship with a low score of 20 points.
Valley Christian, a perennial top-three power in Class 2A ranks, was second with 62. Also finishing in the top five were Fountain Hills (82), Coolidge (145) and Phoenix Christian (164). Eight teams participated in the event.
In addition to the silver medal heroics of Flores, the Lady Horns received stellar performances from four other runners who finished third through sixth.
They included Leigh Anne Haynes (third; 24:09), Amy Davis (fourth; 24:34), Mary Mendoza (fifth; 24:44) and Michelle Closs (sixth; 24:51).
Katrina Beeler and Shalynn McGee also contributed to the Horn cause, finishing eighth and ninth with times of 25:31 and 25:37.
By taking seven of the top 10 medals, the Lady Horns set the stage for what is looking more and more like a run at the East division championship and a strong showing at the state finals.
The victory at Fountain Hills, coupled with an impressive earlier win at the Blue Ridge Invitational, leaves little doubt Hardt might have one of the strongest teams in the history of PHS cross county.
Others who represented Payson High in the FH invitational included Stephanie Ray (13th; 26:27), Rachelle McGee (16th; 26:42), Shaina Vaught (28:59), Lyndsey Heizer (24th; 29:55), Sara Siverson (26th; 30:18), Sarah Hummer (28th; 30:49), Samantha Meyers (29th; 30:58), Brandyce Engler (32nd; 31:49) and Kira Tiffany (42nd; 31:49).
Hardt praised two runners for their accomplishments, saying Heizer ran despite "severe shin splints" which limited her effectiveness and Siverson turned in her "best race of the season."
The boys' team
In finishing second in the team standings with 59 points behind host and meet champion Fountain Hills, which had 48, the Longhorns were paced by hard-nosed Jeremy Lee.
His silver medalist time of 19:11 was just seconds behind the winning Wickenburg runner who toured the 3.1 mile course in 19:02.
Lee's top-notch showing is proof that his rugged practice regimen and attention to detail are paying dividends.
"He is very focused and training well," Hardt said.
By finishing fourth in the 63-runner field, Wes Sprinkle (19:48) made a major improvement over earlier showings, the coach said.
"He's a tough kid for a tough course," Hardt said.
Only a week prior at the Blue Ridge Invitational, Sprinkle was a 38th-place finisher.
Jerry Baker also turned in a solid effort for the Horns, running to a sixth-place showing in 20:12.
Others who competed included Nolan Blalock (17th; 21:24), Matt Christianer (30th; 23:33), Martin Garcia (41st; 24:37), Josh Sprinkle (43rd; 25:15) and Danny Malloy (59th; 28:06).
Senior Joe Sanchez, a team stalwart, didn't race due to an ankle injury he suffered at the Blue Ridge meet.
Both the boys' and girls' teams return to action Oct. 8 at the "Sludge to the Judge" race that will precede the homecoming parade down Main Street. The 2.3-mile run will begin about 1:20 p.m. at the Northern Gila County Sanitary District and end in front of the county offices at the corner of Main Street and Beeline Highway. Opponents will be the Fountain Hill Falcons.
As soon as the cross country meet concludes, the homecoming parade, which will feature event royalty and floats from each of the four classes at Payson High, will travel down Main Street.
New to homecoming this year will be a one-mile run that will pit the inaugural Rim Country Middle School Maverick cross country team against the Blue Ridge Blue Jays.
The meet -- dubbed the Sawmill Mile -- will begin at 1 p.m.