The pursuit of Payson High School's first state cross country championship begins today in Snowflake.
Although the meet goes down in the record book as the East regional finals, it also serves as a qualifier for the state championship showdown to be held Nov. 3 at Anthem.
The top four finishing teams at the East finals and at the other three regional championships being held around the state earn the right to participate in the state showdown.
Individuals whose schools don't qualify for state must earn a berth by finishing among the top-15 runners at regionals.
Barring an unforeseen calamity, the Lady Longhorns are a shoo-in to qualify for state and are also an overwhelming favorite to capture a third consecutive regional championship.
All season long, the state fifth-ranked Lady Horns who finished as state runner-ups last season have dominated the East.
Today's competition begins at 4 p.m. on the Snowflake Municipal Golf Course. Leading the Lady Horns will be sophomore running sensation Whitney Hardt. She enters the finals fresh off a convincing win at the Holbrook Invitational Oct. 20 at the Holbrook Golf Course.
Hardt who trailed early but regained the lead with a strong kick captured first place by covering the 2.8 mile course in 16:53. The victory was just one of many she has captured on the way to proving herself one of the best cross country runners in the state.
As good as she is, it takes a stable of talented runners to win a state crown. The roster features ample runners who could provide the depth necessary to win both the regional and state crowns. Those athletes include Leighann Haynes, Lily Flores, Michelle Closs, Shay McGee, Amy Davis and Rachelle McGee.
At the Holbrook meet in an 115-runner field, Haynes was 13th (18:15), Flores 25th (18:44), Davis 33rd (19:03), Closs 34th (19:04), Shay McGee 72nd (20:30) and Rachelle McGee 77th (20:44).
The Lady Horns probably won't face stiff competition in the quest for the regional title, but a week later at state, both Tuba City and Hopi have proven they have the ability to run with the talented Horns.
The defending state championp, Tuba City, finished second at the Holbrook meet with 101 points. With 106 points, Payson was third. Flagstaff (51) captured the Roadrunner crown, but is a 4A school the Horns won't have to face a state.
Hopi and Payson have taken turns beating each other earlier this season and are currently tied for fifth place in the Arizona High School cross country state team rankings.
At state, the 3A girls competition will begin at 10 a.m. Anthem is located north of Phoenix near I-17.