Competing with nearly 1,000 runners from 30 schools across Arizona, the Payson High School boys and girls cross country teams brought home medals and the knowledge that they are once again a force to be reckoned with.
The Peaks Invitational Tournament last week in Flagstaff provided hundreds of runners in each category for Payson to compete against and especially for some of the younger competitors to learn from.
"The 7,000-foot elevation was a real factor for many of the runners," coach Chuck Hardt said, "especially the teams coming from the Phoenix area who weren't used to the thinner air."
The Payson varsity girls team is the defending regional champion in the East and hopes to continue the winning tradition of qualifying for the state tournament for the tenth year in a row. Hardt says experience is playing on their side.
'"Most everyone is back from our winning team last year, and we've added Whitney Hardt," he said. "Whitney has worked hard all summer and finished fourth in the 1,500-meter competition at the Junior Olympic National Championships in Buffalo, N.Y., turning in a time of 4:50.63, which is a very good time."
Whitney Hardt also did well in the 5k competition in Flagstaff last week, turning in the fastest time for the Lady Longhorns and capturing seventh place overall. Whitney Hardt finished the run with a time of 20:40. Eighth-place honors went to Payson teammate LeighAnne Haynes with a time of 20:44.
The competition saw the Lady Horns compete against 202 other girls including Longhorn's Lily Flores (51), Amy Davis (69), Mary Mendoza (78), Rachelle McGee (120) and Sarah Hummer (127). The Lady Horns brought Payson a fourth-place team finish with a score of 213.
The first-place finish went to a nationally ranked athlete from Desert Vista (Sally Meyerhoff) with an individual time of 19:55. The Desert Vista team also won first place with a team score of 87.
The JV girls also demonstrated great individual effort with Shalynn McGee taking the medal for second place out of 146 runners with a time of 17:48 in the 2.6-mile competition. She was not far off the winning pace, with the first-place finisher registering a time of 17:33. Coach Hardt has his eyes on McGee for an upcoming promotion.
"She'll probably be moving up to varsity level competition before long" he said.
Other JV girls in the competition included Ashli Herrera (67), Jen Shiflet (96) and Stephanie Marrs (108). The JV girls' team did not score as a team due to only having four runners in the competition.
Horns on the run
In boys' cross country action, the Payson varsity team is looking for the underclassmen to step up and make their mark.
"We're a young team this year with a lot of freshmen and sophomores," Hardt said. "We only have one returning senior Wes Sprinkle so he'll need lots of help from the younger guys."
As for how this will affect the season, Coach Hardt is still optimistic.
"We have a couple of kids that can qualify individually for the state championship competition," he said, "but we'll have to have some younger ones step up in order to get the whole team qualified."
The varsity team did battle with 209 runners last week in Flagstaff with Wes Sprinkle coming in 93rd, followed closely by Cole Newbold in 95th place. Other runners included Daniel Jacobs (135), Danny Malloy (176) and James Rivas (202).
Coach Hardt says the strength of this team is in Sprinkle's leadership.
"He just works hard all the time even during the summer and always comes prepared," he said. "If everyone on the team worked that hard, we probably couldn't be stopped."
The JV boys did battle with 150 runners with the top Payson finisher being Joe Behrens who turned in a time of 21:10 taking 40th place. Other JV runners included Tanner Morgan (100), Troy Marrs (110) and Josh Sprinkle (115).
All Payson cross country teams will compete in a home meet Wednesday at the Payson Golf Course. The competition will include over 100 runners from seven schools and should be a great chance for locals to enjoy a great venue for the event.
"This is a pretty fan-friendly event because you can see a lot of the race as it goes twice around the golf course," the coach said.
The action starts at 2 p.m. with the middle school competition and the varsity boys start at 3 p.m.