It's not often that Payson High School's running phenom Whitney Hardt takes a back seat to an opponent.
But, that's exactly what happened Sept. 19 in a four-way cross country meet held at Mountain View Park in Phoenix.
Over the 3.1-mile course, Hardt finished as individual runner-up behind Class 4A defending state champion Jennifer Klein of Prescott.
Klein toured the course in 18:44; Hardt was timed in 21:00.
Although the Lady Horn sophomore didn't earn her usual gold medal, her performance coupled with the efforts turned in by six teammates were enough to earn PHS a first-place showing with a meet low 35 points. Scottsdale Chaparral tallied 38 to finish a close second.
Prescott produced the individual meet champion, but the Badgers could do no better than a third-place showing with 51 points. Host Sunnyslope limped in a distant fourth (105).
The key to the Lady Horns win against the trio of Class 4A schools might have been the performances of a trio of veteran runners Michelle Closs, Lily Flores and Shalyn McGee. The three finished fourth, fifth and sixth in the 48-runner field.
Running almost stride for stride, Closs was clocked in 22:00, Flores in 22:02 and McGee in 22:03.
Topnotch efforts like those, and the one turned in by Hardt, could be just the boost the Lady Horns need in their quest for the school's first state cross country championship.
Also participating for Payson in the Phoenix showdown were Rachelle McGee (15th, 24:41), Sarah Hummer (22nd; 26:11) and Natalie Dixon (46th; 34:23).
The team was without the services of two veterans off last year's team, which earned an 11th place ranking among Arizona cross country teams of all classifications, 1A through 5A.
Leighann Haynes and Amy Davis did not participate after turning out for the team weeks after preseason drills began Aug. 6.
Lady Horn coach Chuck Hardt said he held Haynes out of the Phoenix meet to allow her to rest after a strong showing in the Four Corners Invitational held the prior weekend in Flagstaff.
According to coach Hardt, Davis, who has yet to compete this season, did not run "for training purposes. Her (training) cycles were not set up for a Wednesday meet."
Next up for the Lady Horns is one of the premier meets of the home season.
Friday afternoon's Sludge to the Judge run is traditionally a focal point of the high school's week-long homecoming festivities.
The run begins at the Northern Gila County Sanitary District, proceeds east on Main Street, and ends near the offices of Justice of the Peace Ronnie McDaniel.
The start and ending point earned the run the "Sludge to the Judge" title.
The event begins at 1:30 p.m. with the varsity girls event. Immediately after, the boys run will be held. At the conclusion of the boys competition, about 2 p.m., the homecoming parade will begin.
The high school competition and parade will be preceded at 1:30 p.m. by a middle school event now known as the Sawmill Mile. Rim Country Middle School boys and girls teams, coached by Carolyn Fruth and Eileen Daniels, are entered in the run.
Set to participate in the varsity cross country meet along with the Horns are Blue Ridge, Fountain Hills, Queen Creek and Higley.
The meet is unique on the prep scene in that it is scored in a coed format. In determining the overall champion, the scores from each school's boys and girls teams are combined.
Since the first run was held eight years ago, longtime rivals Fountain Hills and Payson have battled for a traveling trophy that goes to the winner.
The past five years, Payson has claimed the trophy with victories over FH.