As the drama of the season-opening Payson Invitational cross country meet unfolded, Rim country fans were left to gaze upon the proceedings and wonder: What if the Shaun Hardt family hadn't moved from Payson to Eagar/Springerville, taking along two of the state's finest cross country runners?
Had that not happened, the Lady Longhorn cross country team would be ready to make a run at a second consecutive state championship.
But when former PHS girls basketball coach Shaun Hardt opted this summer to accept the head football coaching position at Round Valley High School, the family move meant that daughters Whitney and Kari Hardt would be donning the black and gold of the Elks rather than Payson purple.
The move also made the Lady Horns a probable also-rans when the state meet is held Nov. 9 at Anthem.
Without Whitney and Kari on the roster, the Lady Horns don't have the firepower to run with the likes of championship favorites Tuba City, Ganado and Monument Valley.
The talented running pair proved just how good they can be by finishing first and second at the Payson meet held Sept. 5 at Payson Golf Course.
Whitney, a junior who led the Lady Horns to the 2001 state title, ran her way to the meet title in 20:30. Younger sister, Kari, who last season was a member of the Rim Country Middle School team, finished second in 20:38.
As the two crossed the finished line after a heated battle over the entire 3.2 miles, PHS track and field assistant coach Norm Langeliers muttered, "that'll probably be the one-two finish at state."
Another PHS track coach, Pete Greer, who oversees the throws events, and former Longhorn head coach Dan Reid, nodded their heads in agreement.
Although the Elks had the top two finishers in the six-team invitational, it was the Lady Horns that mustered the depth to win the title with a meet low 25 points.
Behind the running of Whitney and Kari, Round Valley accumulated 38 points to finish second.
Trailing were Higley (78) and Scottsdale Christian (95). Blue Ridge and Snowflake competed but neither team had the mandatory five runners complete the race in order to have a team score posted.
Payson's win was fueled by the running of senior Rachel Jones who finished third in 23:18. At the onset of the season, Lady Horn coach Chuck Hardt predicted that Jones would be the key to any success the team experienced this year.
Although Jones didn't have the speed to stay with either Hardt, she turned in a gutsy race that left her physically drained.
Trailing Jones from Payson were Ashli Herrera (fourth; 25:03), Shay McGee (fifth; 25:07), Autumn Herrera (sixth; 25:07) and Denise Nottingham (seventh; 25:45).
Coach Hardt has long stressed that "pack running" was they key to team success and that's exactly what he received from his Lady Horns who captured the third- through seventh-place slots.
Round Valley, which is in its first year of competition and is coached by Ellie Hardt, could only muster 12th, 15th and 16th places behind Whitney and Kari.
The 35 points posted by the Round Valley trio was enough to drop the Elks into the runner-up slot.
Tanya Davis (17th; 26:46) and Melleny McLaws (20th; 27:10) also competed for the Payson varsity squad.
Jayvee Lady Horn runners included Rebecca Easton (21st; 27:11), Brianna Quinlan (23rd; 27:27), Alesha Huddlestun (25th; 27:42), Lacy Myers (26th; 27:59) and Emily Acord (37th; 30:23).
The Lady Longhorns return to action Sept. 28 at the Blue Ridge Invitational to be held in Lakeside. Start time is 1 p.m.