Unlike the Lady Longhorn cross country team that was depleted by graduation, the boys squad returns a solid nucleus of battle-tested veterans.
Those seasoned runners include a trio Dustin Rogers, Brian Langeliers and Joe Behrens who led the Longhorns last fall to an East region runner-up showing and an eighth-place state finish. In the field of 112 runners at the 2002 state championships, Rodgers was 32nd, Langeliers finished 40th and Behrens was 65th.
At the East region meet in Snowflake, Rogers finished second about 23 seconds behind Alchesay's Derrick Wheeler.
With the team's showings at the regional and state meets, coach Chuck Hardt says the Horns' future looks bright.
"Their best is yet to come," he said. "I couldn't be more proud of them."
With Rogers, Langeliers and Behrens leading the way, the Horns must now muster a support crew that can add the depth needed to win on the varsity level.
Among the candidates for the team are Tanner Morgan, Stephen Colbertson, Josh Sprinkle, Ryan Sundra, Jason Knoell, Paul Welch and Kyle Wortman.
Because Welch and Sprinkle are the only two seniors in the group, Hardt is hoping both can provide leadership as varsity standouts.
Morgan, an alternate on last season's state qualifying team, has the potential to become a varsity top-five runner.
In early workouts, the coach has focused on increasing the youngsters' mileage to help build endurance. He's also stressed improving their speed and strength through a variety of drills and weight training.
If the conditioning the coach has put the athletes through eventually pays dividends, the Horns could find themselves the East region champions.
Last year, with virtually the same running cast, the team fell just five points short of winning the title.
Alchesay, which will probably get the East region favorite nod once again, nipped the Horns 36-41 for the crown.
The Payson boys make their season debut at 3 p.m. tomorrow (Wednesday) at Payson Golf Course. Also competing is Snowflake, Round Valley, Blue Ridge and Higley.