by Max Foster
roundup staff reporter
With five of the top six runners returning from last year's state runner-up team, the Lady Longhorns could now sport the firepower to win Payson High's first cross country championship.
Coach Chuck Hardt, who founded the team six years ago, isn't celebrating a state title just yet, but said he's confident the team has the potential to develop into a prep power.
"Our goal is to win state and be invited to Connolly," he said.
The prestigious Doug Connolly Invitational is held each fall in Tempe. It pits the top 20 teams in the state, regardless of school size classification, against one another. An invitation to the meet is considered a feather in the cap of any team good enough to earn a ducat.
Last year, for the first time, the Lady Longhorns received an invitation to Connolly and went on to finish 11th in a star-studded field that included all of the state's 4A and 5A powers.
One of the goals this year, Hardt said, will be to improve upon that showing.
The Connolly competition will also afford the Lady Longhorns the opportunity to showcase their veteran letter winners, including Whitney Hardt, Leighann Haynes, Shalyn McGee, Michelle Closs and Lily Florez.
As a freshman last season, Hardt the coach's niece came within an eyelash of winning the Class 3A individual state championship.
Over a 3.1-mile course in Gilbert, Hardt was nipped at the finish line by Chino Valley senior Jodie Denike. Judges awarded Denike the win on the finish line, despite the fact both were timed in 19:31.
Whitney is never one to make excuses, but late in the course, she said she took a wrong turn thinking a judge was pointing the way. The miscue cost her valuable seconds and perhaps the state championship.
Denike has since graduated from CV and moved on to Northern Arizona University where she is a member of the Lady Lumberjack track and field team.
Also gone from the running 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.
Denike and Honahnue have departed high school, but coach Hardt anticipates there will be a wealth of new runners ready to test the mettle of his Lady Horn running crew.
"There will always be plenty of competition," he said, "especially up north (at the reservation schools)."
All last season, Whitney Hardt proved she is the Lady Horns' ace, but it takes more than one runner to win a state title.
And, that's where the Lady Longhorns are in good shape the team boasts several other topnotch athletes.
Among them is Haynes who last fall ran her way a commendable 10th-place finish at state. Competing with a nagging side stitch, she toured the Gilbert 5K course in 21:01.
Also at state, McGee placed 17th (21:10); Closs, 21st (21:20); and Florez, 32nd.
At the town-sponsored Monsoon 5K run held early this month, Florez a dedicated, hard-nosed runner showed she might be ready for a breakthrough year by finishing third in her age group.
The only athlete the Lady Horns lost off the 2000 state silver-medalist team was Mary Mendoza (state 70th place) who graduated last spring.
During preseason conditioning, Hardt has scoured his roster to uncover a sixth runner to replace Mendoza.
In prep cross country competition, teams can enter seven varsity participants, but each school's top six are scored.
That format makes each team's No. 6 runner an extremely valuable asset.
"Depth is important to success," coach Hardt said.
One of the strong candidates to replace Mendoza, Hardt said, is Sarah Hummer.
Last season, Hummer was the team's No. 8 runner and an alternate to state.
Also in the running is Rachelle McGee Shalynn's older sister and newcomer Natalie Dixon.
Any of the three could turn into a contributing varsity runner, Hardt said.
On to Flagstaff
The coach will have the opportunity to assess just how good the team is when the Lady Horns travel Sept. 1 to Flagstaff for the Peaks Invitational.
In prep sports circles, the meet is considered just a notch below the Connolly showdown. Peaks officials annually invite 30 of the state's best teams, including the reservation schools. Among those is Class 3A defending state champion Tuba City, Ganado and Monument Valley. All are expected to make a run at the Peaks championship.
The Lady Horns make their Payson debut Sept. 8 at Payson Golf Course. Start time is yet to be determined.