An edgy group of Lady Longhorn runners shook off their queasiness long enough Saturday afternoon at Tempe Kiwanis Park to turn in a commendable 12th place showing at the 28th Annual Conley Cross Country Invitational.
Competing for the first-time ever in the prestigious event, the Lady Horns' anxiety might have been attributed to the fact they were competing in a field of the 20 best teams in Arizona that were there on an invitation-only basis.
"We were in good company better than we'll see at state," Horn coach Chuck Hardt said.
The Lady Horns' showing represented a notch drop over what prep coaches thought of the squad in a recent poll that had Payson ranked 11th in the state.
Following the meet, the coach lauded the fact that the team's showing proved to onlookers that tiny Payson can compete with the big school powers.
"We definitely deserved to be there," he said.
Fueled by the running of freshman Whitney Hardt, who was 10th overall, the Lady Horns tallied 306 points in the Conley shoot-out. Powerful Desert Vista the class 5A state championship favorite claimed the meet title with a low 67 points. Tuba City , a Class 3A state title contender, was second finishing with 111 points.
Hardt, the coach's niece, toured the 3.1-mile course in 17:51 despite being shuffled to the rear early in the course on a tight left-hand turn.
Although she's just a freshman, Whitney has loads of running experience on the state and national levels. Since she was in elementary school, she's been competing in long-distance events in Junior Olympic competition around the United States.
Individual honors at Conley were garnered by the state's most acclaimed cross country runner Tempe Mountain Pointe's Sally Meyerhoff. By taking an early lead, she easily ran her way to the meet crown in 16:45. Amanda Lyon and Julie Fisher, both of Desert Vista, finished 2-3 behind Meyerhoff. Lyon was timed in 17:09 and Fisher in 17:16.
For Payson in the 127-runner field, Leighanne Haynes was 33rd, Michele Closs 82nd, Shalyn McGee, 86th, Lily Florez 95th, Amy Davis 104th and Mary Mendoza 107th.
Due to a clock malfunction, times for runners after 30th place were not recorded.
According to coach Hardt, competing against the state's best at Conley should bode the team members well once the regional and state championships roll around.
He predicts some of the nervousness that naturally goes with competing in a big meet will be erased by the Conley experience.
"I think we'll be more comfortable," Hardt said.
The East region championships will be held Oct. 28 in Whiteriver. The state meet is slated for Nov. 4 at Freestone Park in Gilbert.
With their varsity counterparts training Friday in Payson for the Conley competition, the jayvee girls took the opportunity to travel to the Alchesay Invitational in Whiteriver.
Because one of the five junior varsity runners didn't show up for the bus trip, the Lady Horns didn't field the required number of participants for a team score.
However, jayvee Sarah Hummer carried the Horn banner well, running her way to a bronze-medal finish in 24:08. The winning time was 22:45.
Also competing for Payson were Ashli Herrera (16th; 27:26), Jen Boyd (21st; 28:26) and Stephanie Marrs (26th; 30:17).
The jayvees' times, coach Hardt said, showed marked improvements over their efforts Sept. 13 on the same Alchesay course.