As the Lady Longhorns heat up the track in late-season practice sessions, speculation grows about the team's chances of a state championship three-peat.
That guessing game, however, might be a bit premature since the state track and field showdown is more than three weeks away.
But, for those who enjoy such predictions and prognostications, the best source for assessing the Lady Horns' opportunities lies in the coaches association's Class 3A girls rankings.
Those ratings contain the best 3A track performances turned in this season.
One glimpse at the rankings and it's obvious to even the most casual observer that the greatest obstacle the Lady Horns will face in their title quest will be the Safford Bulldogs.
But, that's nothing unusual since the Lady Horns ended Safford's 12-year reign as state champions in 1999, the Dogs have been frothing at the mouth to regain the crown.
After being denied the state title in 1999 by a 168-157 measure, Safford returned to the championships last year determined as ever to re-establish the school as track kingpin.
But, the disappointed Dogs struggled to third place (105) behind Snowflake (118) and state champion Payson (194).
This year, Safford might own the athletes to make a run at once again being top dogs.
Of the 17 events held in prep track and field events, Safford and Payson both boast No. 1 rankings in five events.
Among the state's best outings, Payson has 36 rankings and Safford 22. That obvious edge in team depth might give the Lady Longhorns the points they need next month to push them to the top of the final standings.
Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, the Lady Longhorns will take to state athletes top-ranked in the 800-meter run (Whitney Hardt; 2:20.12), long jump (Reanna Martinez; 17 feet, 10 inches), triple jump (Reanna Martinez; 37 feet, 2 inches), 1,600-meter relay (Michelle Closs, Amy Davis, Whitney Hardt and Briauna Marshall; 4:20.32) and 3,200-meter relay (Whitney Hardt, Michelle Closs, Brooke Bennett and Leighann Haynes; 9:50.04).
If any are a shoo-in to win a state title, it's the 3,200-meter relay team that is Arizona second-ranked behind Class 5A Tempe Desert Vista.
In 3A competition, second-rated Chino Valley's best ET is more than 33 seconds behind Payson, which will probably make that team an also ran. The crew would have to come up with a Herculean state effort to deny the Horns the gold.
Several of the intriguing match-ups at state will occur in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. Those events could pit Payson freshman Whitney Hardt against longtime rival Jodie Denike a senior from Chino Valley.
At the state cross country championships last fall, Denike who's bound for Northern Arizona University on a track scholarship edged Hardt for the gold medal by less than a second. Denike's narrow win occurred only after Hardt took a wrong turn on the course that cost her several valuable strides.
It's unlikely PHS coaches will enter Hardt in three grueling events like the 800, 1,600 and 3,200. Although she's competed in all three earlier this season, she recently gave up one to become a member of the record-setting 3,200-relay foursome.
If Hardt and Denike collide at state in the 800, the Payson runner holds the statistical edge with a clocking four seconds faster than Denike. However, if they meet in the 1,600, Denike is the favorite, having bested Hardt's PR by four seconds. Neither is the favorite in the 3,200. That honor belongs to Monument Valley's Rebecca Wiseman. In early season meets, she's been two seconds faster than Denike and eight quicker than Hardt.
When the distance events involve Hardt and Denike, strategy and conditioning will undoubtedly play a huge role in the outcome.
Veteran competes in last state meet
Also a highlight of the state meet will be the performance of Reanna Martinez.
If the senior can repeat her four gold medals of last year, she'll go down in the record books as the first girl athlete in the state to win four events in back-to-back state championships.
In the long and triple jumps, Martinez is far and away the best in the 3A conference. But in the 100 and 200 meters which she won in last year's championships she has plenty of competition. In the 100, both Safford's Desiree Diggs (12.74) and Chino Valley's Kelly Smith (13.01) have bettered Martinez's 2001 best of 13.04.
But, in the 2000 championships, Martinez set a new school record of 12.28. She's not been able to equal that mark this year partly because of a knee injury that slowed her in early season. From all indications, Martinez has fully recovered from the injury. If the 200 meters is one of Martinez's four events as it was last season, she'll enter untested, having not competed in it this spring.
The favorite, Kelly Smith of Chino Valley, has been timed in 26.75. Last year, Martinez won the 200 in a school record 25.29.
Whatever occurs in the coming state gold-medal games, the championships are sure to contain enough drama to excite the fancy of every track and field fan.
State rankings for boys, girls
100M Dash Reanna Martinez, 3rd, 13.04.
200M Dash Jana Knighton, 5th, 28.62.
400M Dash Amy Davis, 6th, 65.02; Jenny Cohen, 11th, 65.54; Michelle Closs, 12th, 65.64.
800M Run Whitney Hardt, 1st, 2:20; Leighanne Haynes, 3rd, 2:27.71; Brooke Bennett, 5th, 2:29.56; Michelle Closs, 6th, 2:30.94; Amy Davis, 7th, 2:33.14.
1600M Run Whitney Hardt, 2nd, 5:08.06; Leighanne Haynes, 7th, 5:45.05; Michelle Closs, 12th, 5:58.34.
3200M Run Whitney Hardt, 3rd, 11:26.84; Lily Flores, 10th, 13:01.82.
100M HH Samantha Ellsworth, 3rd, 17.66, Shalynn McGee, 4th, 17.74.
300M LH Briauna Marshall, 2nd, 49.72, Shalynn, 4th, 49.75, Samantha Ellsworth, 7th, 50.88.
400M Relay Payson, 2nd, 52.81.
1600M Relay Payson, 1st, 4:20.32.
3200m Relay Payson, 1st, 9:50.04.
Shot-Put Jocie Gressley, 3rd, 33-9.25, Kaitlin Wilkins, 4th, 33-1.25.
Discus Kaitlin Wilkins, 4th, 102-4, Jocie Gressley, 6th, 96-11, Hillary Hardt, 7th, 96-9, Sarah Hummer, 12th, 86-9, Shalynn McGee, 10th, 4-6.
Long Jump Reanna Martinez, 1st, 17-10.
Triple Jump Reanna Martinez, 1st, 37-2, Jasmine Bland, 7th, 31-1.5, Michelle Closs, 8th, 30-5.
Pole Vault Amy Davis, 2nd, 8-0, April Cheek, 4th, 7-6.
800M Run Jeremy Lee, 3rd, 2:03.44.
1600M Run Wes Sprinkle, 10th, 4:49.64; Daniel Jacobs, 13th, 4:55.44.
3200M Run Wes Sprinkle, 11th, 10:46.62.
300M IH Chris Donaldson, 11th, 44.94.
1600M Relay Payson, 9th, 3:44.64.
3200M Relay Payson, 4th, 8:52.24
Shot-Put Sterling White, 1st, 49-9, Schmidt, 8th, 42-7.
Discus Sterling White, 3rd, 142-7.
High Jump Blake Whetten, 2nd, 6-0.