Lady Longhorn track and field coaches are scrambling to fill the void created by the loss of three standout athletes who produced 126 points and five gold medals at last season's state championship meet.
Missing from the 2001 team that ran, jumped and threw its way to the Lady Horns' third consecutive 3A state title are Reanna Martinez, Briauna Marshall and Brooke Bennett.
Martinez and Marshall graduated; Bennett's family moved to Springerville.
Martinez fueled the Lady Horns drive to the state championship by winning the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and triple jump. Marshall won the 400-meter crown at state and Bennett was a member of the gold-medal-winning 4x800 relay team.
State qualifiers Samantha Ellsworth (4x100 relay, 100 hurdles) and April Cheek (pole vault) are also absent from the Horn fold. Ellsworth's family moved to Higley where her stepfather, Jim Beall, is the school's football coach. Cheek graduated with the class of 2001.
Although the loss of the talented crew will be a tough obstacle to overcome, PHS coach Chuck Hardt is confident the Lady Horns can contend for a sixth straight regional championship and a fourth consecutive state crown.
"We may not be as talented as last year, but the team will be deeper and a force to be dealt with," he said.
"We should see much improvement, in many areas, as the season progresses," he said.
If there is a bright spot in the Lady Horns' lineup, it is sophomore running sensation Whitney Hardt.
As a freshman, Hardt the coach's niece anchored the 4x800 relay team to a state first-place finish. She also finished close seconds in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
In each of the three distance events at state, Hardt was nipped at the finish line by Chino Valley senior Jodie Denike.
This season, Denike has taken her running act to the campus of Northern Arizona University, where she is a freshman member of the Lady Lumberjacks.
With Denike gone and Hardt owning a full year of prep track and cross country experience, the Payson star has the opportunity to become one of the premier runners in the state.
In addition to Hardt, the Lady Horns have several other veterans capable of leading the team to state honors.
Among them are 2001 state qualifiers Shalynn McGee (100 and 300 hurdles), Michelle Closs (4x100 and 4x400 relay) Leighann Haynes (800, 1600, 4x100 and 4x800 relay), Rachelle McGee (300 hurdles and Amy Davis (pole vault).
Returning letter winners include senior Lily Flores (distances) and sophomores Hillary Hardt (throws) and Jenny Cohen (sprints).
Newcomers battling for varsity roster spots are Megan Branstetter, Shaleen Holmes, Lori Wing, Autumn Herrera, Haylee Huff and Tawni Foster.
Building a team to contend
In preseason drills, the Horn coaching staff has worked to evaluate the talents of the veterans and newcomers in order to place them in the events they can best contribute to the Horn cause.
Norm Langeliers, Pete Greer, Ellie Hardt, B.J. Winchester and Shaun Hardt also are on the staff along with coach Hardt.
Langeliers specializes in the sprint and hurdle events and Greer in the throws. Ellie Hardt coaches the distance runs and the 4x800 relay. Winchester (throws) and Shaun Hardt (pole vault) are volunteer assistants.