Without the services of two runners, the defending East region and 3A state champion Lady Longhorn cross country team opens defense of its title at 1 p.m. today in Whiteriver.
According to coach Chuck Hardt, injuries will likely keep senior Shay McGee and sophomore Tanya Davis out of the championships.
McGee, who is the team's No. 2 runner behind fellow senior Rachelle Jones, suffered a knee injury during a recent vacation in Colorado. The injury kept McGee out of the Sludge to the Judge homecoming run Oct. 25 along Main Street. She also has missed three weeks of training and two meets held during the school's fall break.
Although McGee said she hopes to compete in the regional showdown, Hardt has expressed his doubts.
"She has a big heart and is determined to run, but I believe the injury is severe enough that we won't have her back," he said.
Even if McGee, the only Lady Longhorn who was a varsity member of last year's state championship team, can't compete, her presence will provide a big boost for the team.
"It's nice to see that she understands her team needs her emotional strength. She will be there to support the team," Hardt said.
Davis, a fiery athlete who thrives on competition, has not been able to train the past three weeks due to a severe ankle sprain she suffered in an open-gym basketball session. Hardt has decided not to enter her in the regional championships, but could add her to the roster as an alternate.
Each team in the championships is allowed to take seven runners and one alternate. The alternate warms up with her teammates, but only competes if another runner cannot make the starting gun.
In cross country scoring, only the finishes of each team's five fastest runners are calculated.
What to do?
Without McGee and Davis in the lineup, Hardt has called upon the remaining team members to fill the void.
"The ladies have responded, each one has stepped up," he said.
Proof of that came at the Sludge to the Judge run when Lady Longhorn runners took four of the first six places.
Those efforts, combined with the contributions of their male counterparts, lifted Payson to the homecoming run coed championship.
With a meet-low 46 points, PHS easily outdistanced runner-up Fountain Hills (98) and bronze medalist Cibecue (135).
The Lady Horns' best individual showing was Jones' runner-up finish. Her time of 16:23 was eight seconds off the winning pace chalked up by Fountain Hill's Megan Perria.
Following the race, Hardt praised Jones who this fall gave up volleyball to try out for cross country for her steady improvement throughout the season.
Alesha Huddlestun (fourth; 16:58), Autumn Herrera (fifth; 17:18) and Ashli Herrera (sixth; 17:39) also shined for the Lady Longhorns.
The surprise performance among that Rim country trio might have been the freshman Huddlestun. After a slow first year, she's blossomed into a top-notch competitor.
"She ran a huge race," Hardt said.
Another Lady Longhorn team member, Brianna Quinlan, finished 10th in 18:11.
For the Lady Horns to repeat as East champions, the team is going to need a big effort from Quinlan, coach Chuck Hardt predicted.
Other runners from PHS in the homecoming run were Lacy Meyers (12th; 18:57), Becca Easton (14th; 19:25), Crystal Sprinkle (21st; 22:10), Charlotte Hill (22nd; 22:18) and Chrystal Riley (23rd; 22:35).
The Sludge to the Judge course record of 15:05 (2.3 miles) was set three years ago by former Lady Horn Whitney Hardt.
Now a member of the Round Valley Elks cross country team, Hardt was expected to participate in the Sludge to the Judge. However, Elks coach Ellie Hardt, Whitney's mom, opted to skip the Payson event and instead enter the Lady Elks in a Holbrook meet.
At press time, coach Chuck Hardt was unsure of who the starting lineup would be for the East championships.
"Injuries will play a role in who goes," he said.
The most likely competitors are Jones, Huddlestun, Quinlan, Easton, Ashli Herrera and Autumn Herrera. McGee was listed as doubtful.