When preseason drills began in early August, the Lady Longhorns were projected to have the athletes necessary to carry the team to its first state cross country championship.
Fueling the optimism was the fact that the Lady Horns finished the 2000 campaign as 3A state runner-up and returned all but one of the runners off that team.
Also last season, the Lady Horns high-powered performances turned enough heads to convince coaches to rank the team 11th in a state poll that included all the Class 4A and 5A schools.
The optimism in the Horn camp was tarnished a bit opening day when two returning varsity starters LeighAnn Haynes and Amy Davis didn't turn out for the team. Haynes eventually changed her mind and joined the team. A few weeks later, Davis opted to return. With the two back in the fold, the Lady Horns now appear well-stocked to make the state run that fans were hoping for last summer.
Haynes made her debut last week at the Four Corners Invitational and turned in a solid showing by finishing 12th in the 72-runner field. Davis is set to return this week, possibly at Saturday's Blue Ridge Invitational, coach Chuck Hardt said.
Runners Whitney Hardt, Rachelle McGee, Lily Flores, Shay McGee, Michelle Closs and Sarah Hummer have been in the Lady Horns lineup since the onset of preseason drills. Whitney is one of the state's best runners. The only state foe she has not beaten is heralded Sally Meyerhoff of Tempe.
Because Meyerhoff participates for a 5A school, the two have had only a limited number of opportunities to meet head-to-head. One of those chances for Whitney to show her stuff could take place Oct. 6 at the Conley Invitational in Tempe.
Only the best teams in the state are invited to participate, but the Lady Longhorns appear to be one of the choices since they were tapped last year, for the first time, and showed well.
Last week, Whitney gave onlookers at the Four Corners Invitational a glimpse of just how good she can be by winning the girls' competition.
Competing against 4A and 5A athletes including several from state top-ranked Flagstaff, Whitney won the event by more than 4 seconds. While Whitney is a topnotch runner, it takes depth on the roster to earn a state title.
That's where the Lady Longhorns could be stronger than last season; Closs, Flores, Shay McGee, Rachelle McGee, Haynes, Hummer and Davis have a full year of maturity and experience.
Sludge to the Judge
Local fans will have the opportunity to see the team in action at the Sludge to the Judge homecoming run Sept. 26. The run annually precedes the Payson High School homecoming parade along Main Street.
The Sludge to the Judge girls' run begins at 2 p.m. The boys run will immediately follow.