Whitney Leads Hardt's Charges At Cross Country Championship

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If legendary Chicago Cubs radio broadcaster Harry Carey had witnessed the feat, his commentary might have led off with "Holy Cow!"

The gutsy accomplishment that has drawn raves from around the state was PHS freshman Whitney Hardt's second-place finish at Arizona State cross country championships held Saturday in Gilbert.

Running what was probably the most inspired race in the eight-year history of the sport at Payson High, the diminutive 14-year-old came within an eyelash of winning the school's first individual state cross country title.

On championship Saturday over a 3.1-mile wet and muddy Freestone Park course in Gilbert, Whitney was nipped at the finish line by Chino Valley's Jodie Denike.

Meet officials tapped Denike the victor on the "lean," but both runners were awarded identical times of 19:31.

Following the race, an exhausted Hardt said she realized at the finish that first-place honors would probably be given to her Chino Valley foe.

Had it not been for a tad of bad luck, or possibly a disinterested meet official, Hardt might have claimed the title.

After taking a lead midway through the course, Hardt was cruising to what appeared to be a sure victory.

About 900 meters before the finish, Hardt spied an official she thought was marking the course. However, the official was out of position and Hardt took a wrong turn.

Realizing the mistake, she retraced her steps and found her way back onto the course where she immediately engaged in a nose-to-nose battle with Denike.

The wrong turn, Lady Longhorn team coach and founder Chuck Hardt said, probably cost Whitney about 10 to 15 yards.

The fact the young runner was able to make up for the lost time and challenge for the championship was pretty amazing," the coach said.

Although she is a seasoned Junior Olympic runner and has participated in age group competition on both the state and national levels, Whitney admits she felt the pressure of competing for the first time in the prep championships.

"I was nervous before the race but when the gun went off, I started feeling better," she said.

As she sped her way through the course, the rigorous demands of the often-lonely sport soon tested her mental and physical resolve, she said.

"I got really tired and had to keep telling myself that pain is temporary, but pride is forever," she said. "That kind of kept me going."

Making Whitney's state accomplishment even more impressive is the fact she found success at a very young age. Most of her opponents, including Denike, are seniors wrapping up their prep careers.

Among the veterans Whitney was able to dethrone was two-time Class 3A defending champ Ciji Honahnue of Tuba City. Due partly to the presence of Whitney, Honahnue had to settle for fourth place while running the course in almost the same time she did last year.

With three more years to hone her incredible running skills, Whitney has left little doubt she will be a prominent fixture on the state racing scene for seasons to come.

Also capturing the attention of the many coaches and fans on hand Saturday was Whitney's ET. Her clocking (19:31) was a full two seconds faster than that of Class 4A state champion Jennifer Klein of Prescott.

In addition to the efforts of Whitney, the Lady Horns received highly commendable showing from four other point producers.

Leighanne Haynes finished 10th (20:39), Shalynn McGee was 17th (21:10), Michelle Closs 21st (21:20) and Lily Florez 32nd (22:09) in the 128-runner field.

Haynes running with a side stitch was able to significantly improve her time over what she ran in last year's meet (22:01). McGee and Closs also bested their 1999 efforts of 23:10 and 22:26.

Although only five runners are scored from each team, the Lady Horns were represented by Amy Davis (55th; 23:01) and Mary Mendoza (70th; 23:50).

Horns state runners-up

The efforts of Whitney and her teammates lifted the Lady Longhorns to the best showing ever turned in by a PHS cross country team.

Finishing as state silver medalists with 75 points, the Horns trailed only powerful Tuba City (43) which had four runners finish among the top 10.

Tuba's ascension to the crown was no surprise in the Horn camp. Only days prior to the meet, coach Hardt predicted the path to the state championship would go through Tuba.

In an all school classifications (1A through 5A) poll compiled by coaches at the regular season's end, the tradition-rich Warriors were second-ranked behind 5A powerhouse Tempe Desert Vista. The East Region champion Lady Horns held down the state 10th-place ranking in the same poll.

TC and Payson were the only 3A schools included in the poll dominated by Phoenix and Tucson teams.

Although the state meet marks the end of the 2000 prep campaign, many of the Lady Horn runners will continue to participate in Junior Olympic track and field events.

Some, including Whitney, are slated to travel to Phoenix Thunderbird Park Saturday for the first of those meets.

Also, the multi-talented Whitney hung up her running spikes Monday afternoon long enough to don basketball sneakers. She says she is eager to try out for the PHS girls basketball team being coached by her father, Shaun Hardt.

"Running is fun," she said, "but I'm looking forward to basketball too."

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