With an East region championship and a state 10th-place ranking tucked into their bulging duffel bag of accomplishments, the Lady Longhorns are pursuing the school's first-ever cross country state crown.
The showdown for state marbles kicks off at 2:45 p.m. Saturday at Freestone Park in Gilbert.
If the Arizona Track Coaches Association polling is a valid indicator of team strength, the biggest obstacle lying in the Horns' path to a state title is Tuba City. The Warriors are the only Class 3A team ranked ahead of Payson in the coach's poll which considers schools of all size classifications 1A through 5A.
In the most recent poll, conducted Oct. 23, TC held down the number-two ranking behind Class 5A power Desert Vista.
Other 3A teams named to top-20 slots in the poll were Hopi (11th) and Chinle (14th).
For the Horns to out-duel the likes of Tuba City, Hopi and Chinle, the team will need what coach Chuck Hardt describes as "pack running," which means, the Lady Horns must have their five entries finish in a pack at the top of the individual standings. If a single Payson straggler fails to keep pace with the front-runners, it could spell doom to the Horns' state championship hopes.
The Horns' pack running known as team depth in other sports was never more evident than last week at the East Regional Championships held in Whiteriver.
There, the Horns had seven athletes finish in the first 11 slots. That impressive feat allowed the team to easily run away with the East title.
Payson tallied 18 points; Alchesay with 64 was a distant second.
Strong pack running also helped lift the Lady Horns to the Canyon State Academy Invitational championship in mid-October.
Payson's third, fourth, fifth and sixth runners finished within 32 seconds of one another behind meet champion Whitney Hardt and runner-up Leighanne Haynes.
"That's the type of running we need at state," coach Chuck Hardt said at the conclusion of the meet.
As the East individual champion, Whitney Hardt who was later named the region's Athlete of the Year will lead the Horn contingent to state. Although it will be her first state meet, the youngster is no stranger to stiff competition, having participated the past several years in Junior Olympic events on both the state and national level.
During her inaugural prep year, the frosh has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments but none is more commendable than her first-place showing at the East championships held last week in Whiteriver.
Over a 3.2-mile course that had to be changed at the last minute due to muddy conditions the youngster battled drizzling rain and outlegged the best the East had to offer.
Despite her youth she's 14-years-old and often competes against 17- and 18-year-old athletes Hardt sports the strong will and talent to contend for the state championship.
Also in the Horns arsenal of fleet-footed runners are Michelle Closs, Shalynn McGee, Amy Davis and Haynes.
All season, the foursome has provided Payson with the firepower it takes to be successful in big-time meets.
Haynes advances to state as the East regional runner-up, having finished just four seconds behind Hardt. She also takes to the state showdown the experience of having participated in the 3A finale the past two seasons.
Closs and McGee are also highly talented runners having finished third and fourth at the East championships.
Davis, the East eighth place finisher, is a veteran runner whose efforts at state will be a key to Horn success.
Because the Longhorn boys team struggled to a fifth-place finish overall in the regional showdown, it did not qualify for a state team berth. Only the top four schools in each of the four regional meets qualify.
One ofthe gut-wrenching moments of not qualifying as a team occurred just as the East championships were ending.
According to coach Hardt, the team members were originally told by a meet official that they had finished fourth. That news set off a celebration among team members. However, only moments later it was announced a mistake was made in the score calculations and Payson was actually fifth, one-point behind fourth-place Blue Ridge.
Final tallies reveal Blue Ridge compiled 102 points and Payson 103, so, Blue Ridge goes packing to Freestone Park and Payson stays home.
Whiteriver Alchesay paced by individual champ Blaine Goklish advances to state as the East champion with 27 points. Show Low (70) was second and Pinnacle (90) third.
Although the PHS team won't be participating in the season finale, the Horns will be represented by Wes Sprinkle. By virtue of a 13th-place finish at regionals, Sprinkle earned an individual state seed. Top-15 runners in the regional meets who are not members of a qualifying team earn the right to advance to state.
The 3A state boys competition will begin at 2:15 p.m. at Freestone Park.