Among the best Rim country sports memories of less than a year ago are those of the Lady Longhorns running their way to the school's first state cross country championship.
Behind the efforts of sophomore Whitney Hardt who won the individual state title in 18:28 the Lady Horns pulled off the upset of the fall season edging highly favored Hopi, Tuba City and Ganado for the crown.
That will be a tough act to follow.
The Lady Horns are now starting from scratch almost like the early years of the program when coach and team founder Chuck Hardt had to scour the campus to find enough girls to fill the team.
Gone from the state championship roster are almost all of last season's stars. Whitney Hardt, LeighAnne Haynes, Lily Flores, Amy Davis, Rachelle McGee and Michelle Closs have all departed.
Whitney, the coach's niece, will be showcasing her skills this year for the Round Valley Elks where her father, Shaun, is the first-year head football coach. Last spring, Shaun Hardt resigned his teaching position in the Payson district to move his family to Eager.
Haynes, Flores, Davis, McGee and Closs graduated in May with the PHS class of 2002.
The five teenagers provided the team depth the Lady Longhorns needed last season to win the state championship.
In the field of 104 state qualifiers, Haynes was 8th, Flores 10th and Closs 13th. Davis crossed the line 34th and Rachelle McGee was 54th.
The only member of the state championship team returning to the Payson fold is senior Shalynn McGee. Last year, she finished 22nd at the state finals.
Building a team
Coach Hardt's reloading efforts of this fall have centered around untested youngsters he hopes can step up and fill the void created by the departed athletes.
Among his most promising prospects is senior Rachelle Jones. A volleyball player most of her prep sports career, Jones opted this fall to turn out for the cross country team.
That decision pleased Hardt.
"I'm excited to have Rachelle because running is a lifestyle for her, all she needs to do is train for competition," he said.
Among the other prospects the coach has to select his varsity and jayvee teams from are Autumn Herrera, Ashli Herrera, Tanya Davis, Denise Nottingham, Emily Acord, Becca Easton, Charlotte Hill, Alesha Huddlestun, Tawni Lantz, Melleny McLaws, Lacy Myers, Brianna Quinlan, Chrystal Riley, Crystal Sprinkle, Kari Taft and Stephanie Vandruff.
According to Hardt, the challenge of that group is to attain a high level of mental and emotional toughness.
"They are so young, but someday they are going to have to understand how to compete if they are to be successful," he said.
Each weekday before preseason practices began, Hardt stressed to the group the importance of mental preparation in cross country running.
Among his topics last week were enthusiasm and desire, the courage to succeed, internal motivation and self direction, commitment to excellence and the ability to handle adversity.
Hardt is the first to admit to his charges that running is a lonely sport and it certainly is not a good fit for every high school athlete. But he's also quick to point out that long distance running offers intensity, excitement and challenges not readily available elsewhere in the lives of teenagers.
Running, Hardt told the group one practice day, can become "a means to personal growth and enjoyment in the pursuit of your goals."
In addition to stressing the mental aspects of the sport, pre-season practices have focused on form running, goal setting, aerobics, speed and strength work.
In his ninth year as the cross country coach, Hardt said he doesn't believe most people understand how involved cross country running is.
"It is a lot more than going out and running," he said. "It takes a lot of training, a lot of work to be really good."
Tomorrow (Wednesday) at Payson Golf Course, Snowflake, Round Valley and Blue Ridge will join the Lady Horns in the 2002 regular season debut. Higley from the West region also will be on hand.
The competition begins at 2 p.m. with the boy's middle school run. Immediately after, the middle school girls will compete.
The Rim Country Middle School Mavericks are entered in the competition.
At 3 p.m., the high school boys run will begin. The girls event follows immediately.
The Lady Horns return to action Sept. 7 when they travel to Flagstaff for the Peaks Invitational. There, the Lady Longhorns will clash with most of the northern Arizona reservation teams they beat at last year's state championship.