by Max Foster
roundup staff reporter
The Monsoon 5K run gave longtime Payson High School coach Chuck Hardt the opportunity to preview a pair of the runners who this season could lead the Lady Longhorns to the school's first state cross country championship.
Hardt was on hand Friday evening at Rumsey Park to watch the 3.1-mile event that had in its field Lady Horn team members Whitney Hardt, the coach's niece, and Lily Florez.
Whitney, who finished second in the state last year as a freshman, showed she hasn't lost a step by easily winning the Monsoon's women's division championship. Florez a state 32nd-place finisher last fall finished third at the Monsoon in her age division.
Although several other members of last year's state runner-up cross country team didn't participate, they are expected to return to the PHS fold to give Payson the talent to make a run at the state title.
Among the seasoned crew is Leighanne Haynes, Shalyn McKee, Michelle Closs and Amy Davis. All four were members of last year's highly successful team that finished second at state behind Tuba City.
The only runner the Horns lost to graduation from the 2000 team was Mary Mendoza, who finished 70th at state.
In cross country scoring, seven varsity runners participate and the top five from each team are scored. Which means, if Whitney, Haynes, McGee, Closs, Florez and Davis returned to the Longhorn squad when pre-season practices began yesterday (Monday) afternoon, coach Hardt will have to uncover just one other runner to fill the varsity roster.
Haynes will bring to the team the experience of having run her way to a commendable 10th-place finish at state. Running with a side stitch, she toured the Gilbert 5K course in 22:01. McGee was 17th (21:10), Closs 21st (21:20) and Davis 55th (23:01).
This season, few teams in the Class 3A conference will boast the luxury of having as many returning veterans to provide the leadership it takes to win a state title.
More good news in the Lady Longhorn running camp is that Whitney Hardt and her teammates won't have to deal with Chino Valley running sensation Jodie Denike.
Last spring, Denike graduated from Chino and will soon be competing for the Northern Arizona University Lady Lumberjacks.
At the 2000 state championship meet, Denike nipped Whitney on a finish line lean to win the individual title. Both runners were awarded identical times of 19:31.
Also gone from the prep scene by virtue of graduation is two-time conference champion Ciji Honahnue of Tuba City. Although she won the state title as a sophomore and junior, Honahnue had to settle for fourth-place honors last year as a senior.
The cross country season gets off to a running start Sept. 1 at the Peaks Invitational in Flagstaff. The Lady Horns debut at home Sept. 5 at the Payson Invitational.
Start times for both meets have not yet been announced.