There was no disappointment in veteran coach Chuck Hardt after he watched his Payson High boys cross country team fall five points short of winning the East regional championship.
"With three sophomores and a junior (on the team), their best is ahead of them," he said. "I couldn't be more proud."
The coach's comments came Saturday after the team returned from Snowflake where Alchesay edged the Horns 36-41 for the region title.
Although the second-place finish wasn't the crown the Horns went looking for, the showing does qualify the entire team for the state championship Friday at Anthem near Phoenix.
With a young and inexperienced lineup, the Horns don't pose a threat for the 3A state title but a top-10 showing is a possibility.
"We could finish at least seventh," Hardt said. "The four north (region) schools (Hopi, Window Rock, Winslow and Grey Hills) will be tough for anyone to beat and Rio Rico is the defending (state) champion.".
Dustin Rodgers, Brian Langeliers, Joe Behrens, Daniel Jacobs, Martin Garcia, Josh Dahm and Danny Malloy are set to represent Payson in the state finals. Tanner Morgan will travel with the team as an alternate.
Rodgers, only a sophomore, advances to state as the Horns' top runner and a second-place finisher at the regional finals.
Touring the 5K Snowflake course in 17:36, Rodgers was bested only by Alchesay's Derrick Wheeler, who captured the East individual title in 17:13.
In addition to Rodgers' efforts, Langeliers (6th; 18:17), Behrens (7th; 18:27), Jacobs (11th; 18:56), Garcia (15th: 19:02), Dahm (17th; 19:46) and Malloy (20th; 20:10) also turned in commendable showings at the regionals.
Despite battling an asthma attack, Jacobs' gutsy efforts didn't go unnoticed.
"He's had (asthma) all along, but for some reason he was wrestling with his worst case," the coach said. "He just battled through it."
A field of 33 runners participated in the championships.
In addition to Alchesay and Payson, the East will be represented at the state finals by regional bronze medalist Blue Ridge (71) and fourth-place finisher Snowflake (77).