As the odds-on favorite to win the East regional girls' cross country championship tomorrow (Saturday) the Lady Longhorns will take to Whiteriver a well-rounded roster of solid veterans and at least one highly talented newcomer.
The rookie in the acclaimed PHS varsity crew is speedy freshman Whitney Hardt.
Although she's been competing on the high school level only two short months, Hardt can call upon a wealth of experience that includes running in state and national Junior Olympic meets.
Among the seasoned athletes who have survived the rigors and pressures of regional and state championships are Leighanne Haynes, Amy Davis, Lily Flores, Michelle Closs, Shalynn McGee and Mary Mendoza.
On the Horn jayvee team, Sarah Hummer, Jennifer Shiflett and Ashli Herrera are promising newcomers who could lend depth to the Horn cause, should a varsity regular fall by the wayside.
Longtime PHS coach Chuck Hardt's task at practice this week has been to sort through the athletes and select the seven best runners to represent the Lady Horns in the regional showdown.
At press time, he was still mulling the decision.
Running to recognition
In early October, as the state's 11th ranked team, the Lady Horns earned a first-ever invitation to the prestigious Conley Invitational in Tempe. There, the team went nose-to-nose against Arizona's best teams regardless of school size classification.
After watching his team finish 12th overall, coach Hardt predicted the experience of competing against the state's elite like Tempe Mountain Pointe's heralded Sally Meyerhoff would bode well for the Horns in postseason.
"I think we'll be more comfortable," he said.
At Conley, Hardt stamped herself a topnotch contender by finishing 10th in the star-studded field. After being shuffled to the rear on a tight left-hand turn early in the course, Hardt rallied to run the 3.1 miles in 17:51. In winning the race, Meyerhoff was clocked at 16:45.
Hardt's other accomplishments this season have included a seventh-place finish at the season-opening Peaks Invitational in Flagstaff, where she was pitted against premier runners from northern Arizona reservation schools.
Most of the season Hardt has received all the competition she could ask for from her teammate Haynes.
Only one week after the Peaks run, Haynes out-dueled Hardt to win the individual championship of the Payson Invitational.
The event turned into one of the closest cross country races ever witnessed in the Rim country, when Haynes was timed in 22:00 and Hardt in 22:01.
Weeks later, on the rugged Desert Canyon Golf Course, Haynes survived the searing desert heat to top the 50-runner field in 21:37. Finishing second, Hardt was clocked in 22:04.
Local fans had a prime opportunity to view the Lady Horns' one-two running punch at the Sludge to the Judge run Oct. 6 as part of the PHS homecoming festivities.
Again, the race turned into the Hardt-Haynes show as the pair dominated the proceedings, finishing first and second. Hardt was clocked in 15:05 and Haynes only seven-tenths of a second behind her.
At last week's Canyon State Academy Invitational, Hardt was first (18:53) and Haynes third (18:55).
All season, the talented PHS duo has shown the potential to finish one-two at regionals. But, for the Horns to win the East crown and make a run at state, the team will need help from other team members.
After watching his squad win the Canyon State Academy meet, coach Hardt predicted the Horns three, four, five and six runners (Closs, McGee, Davis, Flores) would be the key to postseason success.
If the foursome can finish in the top 15 at regionals and the Hardt/Haynes duo dominates as usual, the Horns could be celebrating a third consecutive regional championship.
That would spark a quest to win the school's first cross country state championship.
The finale will be contested Nov. 4 at Gilbert's Freestone Park.