If Payson High School boys track and field coach Chuck Hardt's predictions hold true, the 2002 squad will be better than the team that finished ninth at state last season.
"We should be much deeper and much improved," he said.
Fueling the coach's optimism of a more potent track squad could be a solid group of returning veterans who understand the sacrifices it takes to be successful at state.
Among those in the lineup who've weathered the 3A championship showdown in the past are senior Blake Whetten and junior Chris Donaldson.
At last year's state championship meet, Whetten finished second in the high jump with a leap of 6 feet 6 inches. Although Whetten was participating in his first year of track and was slowed in midseason by shin splints, Hardt was encouraged by his potential.
"He could become a really good one the best since Darren Reid," Hardt said at the conclusion of the season.
Reid set the school high jump record of 7 feet in 1990.
In Donaldson, the Horns have a talented hurdler who came out of nowhere to finish third at state in the 300-meter hurdles (42.28).
His hard-nosed efforts throughout the season brought praise from coaches.
"I learned a lot about him," Hardt said. "He made himself very good."
With a year of maturity and experience behind them, both Whetten and Donaldson could become two of the state's best.
Although the Horns will have two prime-time performers in the high jump and hurdles, coaches will have to muster the athletes to fill a void in the shot-put and discus.
Last year's state gold medalist in both events, Sterling White, graduated from PHS last spring.
Currently, the Horns have two throwers Lucas Schmidt and Levi Amon who could step up and become regional and state contenders.
According to Hardt, both Schmidt and Amon have improved a lot since last season.
Paul Welch, Rick Corso and Austin Davis will be among those battling the two for varsity starting honors in the throws.
In the sprints, the Horn coaching staff is sorting through a group of prospects trying to find varsity performers. Candidates include Logan Milam, Andy Sergeant, Josh Sprinkle, Will Gnagi and Danny Malloy.
The only letter winner in the group is Malloy.
In the distances, coaches are evaluating Martin Garcia, Joe Behrens, Brian Langeliers, Dusty Rodgers and Tanner Morgan. All five have cross country experience.
Varsity team candidates in the long jump, high jump and triple jump include the three Cassuto brothers Nick, Alex and Wellington.
In the pole vault, Mike Orozco will hook up with letter winner Matt McCarty to give the Horns a pair of athletes with the potential to excel.
If the Horns are to contend for their first state championship since 1990, the road to the title will travel through both Blue Ridge and Safford.
Blue Ridge opens the campaign as two-time defending East region champions. Safford has won the state title the past two seasons and is again expected to field a solid squad.