The Lady Longhorn cross country team reached the pinnacle of success Sunday at Tempe Corona del Sol High School when five of its eight team members were named to the Arizona Coaches Association North versus South All-Star meet. More honors flowed Payson's way when team founder Chuck Hardt was voted the 3A conference's Coach of the Year.
The Lady Horns selected to the all-star competition as members of the North team were Leighann Haynes, Lily Flores, Michelle Closs, Amy Davis and Rachelle McGee.
All-stars must be seniors and are selected at season's end in a voting of Arizona Coaches Association members.
As the coach of the year, Hardt will head the North team when the ACA meet is contested next summer in Casa Grande.
The all-star accolades doled out to Hardt and the senior runners came only two months after the team won Payson High's first state cross country championship.
Hardt, who was on hand in Tempe to receive his coaching honor, remembers well the early days of the cross country program.
"We had more coaches than we had athletes (Dan Reid, Norm Langeliers, Bruce Haught and Hardt)," he said. "I was teaching girls PE (at Payson High) then, so I recruited (runners) out of my classes."
It wasn't long before Hardt was able to convince a handful of students to join Payson's first runner, Teresa Mendoza, on the Lady Horns squad.
Although the original roster was limited to six girls, the team qualified for the state meet by finishing among the top four teams at the regional competition.
Since that first season, the Lady Horns have never failed to qualify their entire team for the state finals.
In 1995, after two years of successful existence, the Payson Unified School District Governing Board recognized cross country as a prep sport at the high school.
That acknowledgment resulted in the team being funded from school coffers rather than having to exist on donations and fund-raisers. The board's decision also removed Hardt's "volunteer" coach status and allowed him to receive a salary.
During his stint as the team's only coach Reid, Haught and Langeliers stepped down after the first year Hardt won five regional coach of the year honors. He also coached many dedicated, accomplished runners including Stephanie Ray, Jenny Garrett and Coleen Hale. But none of those athletes were ever able to propel the Lady Horns to the success the team enjoyed this season.
The state championship run
Behind the efforts of the seniors and sophomore Whitney Hardt who will be eligible for the all-star meet in two years the Lady Longhorns pulled off the upset of the season.
Prior to the state meet, Hopi and Ganado were favored to win the 3A crown primarily because the two reservation schools had combined for seven regular season victories over Payson.
Following each of those disappointing losses, Hardt continued to maintain that his squad had the potential to squeeze out a victory once the state showdown rolled around.
The longtime coach was on target with his assessment.
Finishing with a meet-low 53 points, the Lady Horns easily outdistanced Hopi (65), Ganado (77) and Tuba City (90) for the title.
Following the win, an elated Hardt proudly proclaimed the girls "ran as sharp as I've ever seen them."
The triumph was fueled by Whitney who won the individual state championship, turning in an 18:28 clocking.
Trailing the speedster in the 104-runner field were Haynes (eighth; 20:04), Flores (10th; 20:21), Closs (13th; 20:33), Shalynn McGee (22nd; 20:58), Davis (34th; 21:31) and Rachelle McGee (54th; 22:45).
In addition to winning a state championship and being chosen all-stars, the senior Lady Longhorns are being wooed by several Valley junior colleges including Paradise Valley, Gateway and Scottsdale. Prescott Yavapai college is also pursuing Flores and Haynes.
Hardt said he is hoping the seniors opt to accept any scholarship help the schools offer and go on to continue their careers at the next level.
"I think they can succeed," he predicted.