When fall sports preseason practices began Aug. 11, veteran cross country coach Chuck Hardt enthusiastically welcomed the largest turnout in the history of the program.
A total of 39 athletes, 26 boys and 13 girls, were on hand for the opening day of practice
"This is great. We'll be able to have full jayvee and varsity teams," he told the boys team as they rested on the grass infield of the Rumsey I ballpark.
The runners were recovering from an after-school conditioning run that took them from the campus of Payson High School along the town streets and into Rumsey Park. Following the brief rest, Hardt sent the players scurrying to Taylor Pool where they conditioned in distance swims, sprints and stretching exercises.
The coach, who founded the PHS cross country program 10 years ago, says the purpose of the preseason program is to help the runners build speed and strength "through long runs and race pace repeats."
Another goal of Hardt's will be to teach the youngsters how to compete at a high level.
Because the prep campaign doesn't officially begin until Sept. 3 at Payson Golf Course, Hardt has about 10-plus practices remaining to mold his athletes into shape for a run at 4A Grand Canyon regional honors.
The road to the GC championship for any team must pass through Page where the Dust Devils have their entire roster returning from last year's regional championship team. Following Page's 2002 gold medal region win, the Devils went on to finish third in the 4A championships.
Hardt also tabs Chinle as a strong contender for GC honors.
Because Payson is a first-year member of both the Grand Canyon region and the 4A conference, there are probably many in the northland who will be overlooking the Longhorns as a contender.
But that oversight could be a serious mistake for the likes of GC members Flagstaff, Coconino, Sinagua, Mingus, Page and Chinle.
The Longhorn boys team has in its arsenal four seasoned runners who could turn out to be among the best in the conference. The four -- Tanner Morgan, Joe Behrens, Dustin Rodgers and Brian Langeliers -- led the Longhorns to a fifth-place showing in last fall's Class 3A state championships. The finish was the best effort ever turned in by a PHS boys cross country team. Posting 114 points at the 3A meet, the Horns trailed only traditional cross country powers Hopi (32), Window Rock (71), Tuba City (78) and Rio Rico (95).
The three reservation schools -- Hopi, Window Rock and Tuba City -- might have fielded more potent teams than any Payson will compete against as a member of the 4A conference.
Rodgers returns to the Payson fold as a 17th place finisher (17:07) at last year's state championship. Morgan was only one second behind him in 18th place; Behrens was 21st, and Langeliers took 23rd.
At the 3A East regional championships one week prior to state, Morgan led the Longhorns to a second-place finish behind the Alchesay Falcons. Covering the 3.1-mile course in 17:20, Morgan finished hot on the spikes of regional champion Kyle Kokahsy of Alchesay. Also for Payson, Rodgers was fourth and Langeliers took fifth. Behrens finished 12th after suffering a side stitch early in the race.
Although the runners have not yet met behind closed doors to set team goals, a priority will be to win the region championship and finish among the top three at the state meet, Hardt said.
In order for the Horns to realize those aspirations, the younger athletes must improve enough to provide depth for what Hardt calls the key to victory: "pack running." In that philosophy, the entire roster of runners tries to finish in a close-knit pack near the front runners. That philosophy keeps the Horns point total low and helps add to the tally of its foes.
After opening the season Sept. 3, the Longhorns will travel to the northland for the Flagstaff Peaks Invitational (Sept. 6) and Four Corners Invitational (Sept. 20). Those two meets will provide the Longhorns with a glimpse of what it will take to run with the big school's best. Both invitationals traditionally draw the most accomplished 4A and 5A schools as well as the 3A reservation powers.
For local fans, the highlight of the campaign will be the annual Sludge to the Judge homecoming run to the held at 1:30 p.m., Oct. 3 on Main Street.
The Lady Longhorns
During the first few days of school, fellow teachers at Payson High probably noticed a huge smile on Hardt's face. The coach's grin was probably the result of seeing senior Jennie Cohen turn out for the cross country team. Cohen, a 5:24 miler for the Lady Longhorn track and field squad, might be just the catalyst the team needs to improve upon its ninth-place state finish last season.
Cohen is expected to fill the void left by Rachelle Jones who graduated last spring. Jones, an East region fourth-place finisher in 2002, ran her way to 23rd at the state finals.
This fall, Cohen will hook up with returning letter winners Autumn Herrera, Becca Easton and Alysha Huddlestun to give Payson four top-notch runners.
At the 2002 East championships, Huddlestun was 7th, Herrera took 8th and Easton was 18th.
Along with the loss of Jones to graduation, the team will be without the services of Shalynn McGee who also graduated.
The Lady Horns No. 2 runner last season behind Jones, McGee did not participate in the regional or state championships due to a knee injury suffered during a fall break vacation.
The Lady Horns strongest competition in the Grand Canyon region will probably be provided by Flagstaff. The Eagles have four runners returning from last year's regional and state championship team.
Like their male counterparts, the Lady Horns tip-off the season Sept. 3 at Payson Golf Course. The girl's schedule is identical to the boy's agenda.
The schedules were published in the Aug. 8 issue of the Payson Roundup.