The Lady Longhorn cross country team tuned up for Saturday's all-important East Regional championships by winning the Canyon State Academic Invitational held Oct. 19 near Queen Creek.
If the team's solid performance was any indication of future success, the Lady Horns could be looking at a third consecutive regional crown.
"Our number three, four, five and six runners finished within 32 seconds of one another that's the type of pack running we need at regionals and state," coach Chuck Hardt said.
The runners Hardt praised for adding depth to the Payson cause were Leighann Haynes (3rd; 18:55), Michelle Closs (6th; 20:13), Shalynn McGee (7th; 20:16) and Amy Davis (12th; 20:34).
Hardt cited Closs for continuing to improve and Amy Davis, for running great while she was under the weather.
He also praised McKee's conditioning in the final going. "She finished very strong," he said.
The foursome provided the consistency the Lady Horns need for a run at post-season crowns but it was the exploits of freshman Whitney Hardt that had the gallery talking.
By turning in an ET of 18:53 over the 2.9-mile course, the fledgling runner out-dueled a Valley Christian opponent to win the individual championship.
Hardt's efforts and those of her teammate lifted the state 11th-ranked Lady Horns to a first-place finish with 29 points.
Fountain Hills (42) was runner-up and Rio Rico (60) copped the bronze.
Also representing Payson High School in the invitational were Lily Flores (15th; 20:45) and Mary Mendoza (21st; 21:53).
Boys finish fourth
Fueled by the medal winning efforts of Cole Newbold (11th; 17:14), Wes Sprinkle (13th; 17:18) and Daniel Jacobs (17:58), the boys' team cruised to a fourth-place finish, tallying 108 points.
Top three team honors went to Rio Rico (23), Fountain Hills (38) and Chandler Seton (95).
Rio Rico entered the invitational as the favorite to win the Class 3A championship when the meet is contested Nov. 4 at Freestone Park in Gilbert.
Rico also fielded the invitational's individual champion Josh Robles who was clocked in at 15:19.
The Payson field of runners also included Noah Barnes (18:40), Danny Malloy (35th; 18:58), James Rivas (39th; 19:52) and Gery DeBognie (58th; 24:10).
A total of 61 varsity runners competed.