A Payson High School coach and athlete have been named the best the East region has to offer.
Chuck Hardt was named the region's Coach of the Year and sophomore Whitney Hardt was tapped the Runner of the Year in coaches' balloting cast last week.
Coach Hardt, who founded the Payson High School cross country program in 1993, led the Lady Horns this season to the school's first state cross country championship.
The team also ran its way to the 2001 East region championship.
Whitney Hardt, a sophomore, easily captured the East region and state champion individual titles.
The Lady Horn victories at the regional finals and at state marked the culmination of coach Hardt's eight-year effort to build the team into a force on the state scene.
During the first two seasons of its existence, the team competed on a school club basis and was not funded by the district. Recruiting head-to-head against volleyball, soccer and football, Hardt struggled to convince students that cross county was a rewarding sport.
As a PE teacher at Payson High, he scoured his classes looking for youngsters interested in long-distance running. Ultimately, he was able to uncover enough teenagers to field full boys and girls teams.
The Longhorns early successes convinced the school board to recognize cross country, in 1995, as an official sport at PHS.
After several years of limited success, the team finally knocked on the door of state honors last year when it finished as the Class 3A runner-up five points off the pace of champion Tuba City.
As the state fifth-ranked team most of this season, the Horns were highly regarded, but not one of the favorites to win the state title. Hopi, Tuba City and Ganado were projected as championship favorites based on regular season performances.
But at the state meet held Nov. 3 at Anthem, coach Hardt's charges surprised many finishing with a meet low tally of 53 points. Hopi (65), Ganado (77) and Tuba City (90) trailed.
Since she was a freshman, Whitney Hardt the coach's niece has been the ace runner in the Lady Horn fold. At last year's state meet, Whitney finished as the runner-up after taking a wrong turn that cost her several seconds.
After a summer of training in both basketball and cross country, she returned this fall an even better athlete. No matter what meet she was entered in this season, Whitney was a threat to win the gold.
At the regional championships held in late October in Snowflake, Whitney won the gold medal touring the 5K course in 18:37. Teammate Leighann Haynes supplied the most competition, finishing second in 20:06. The victory at Snowflake set the stage for Whitney's state victory which was recorded in 18:28.
Although she was facing the best runners the state had to offer, Whitney was never seriously challenged after taking the lead early in the race. Virginia Begay of Window Rock finished as runner-up a full 26 seconds behind Whitney.