Rim country sports in the summer of 2002 took a back seat to caring for evacuees from the Rodeo-Chediski forest fire that consumed thousands of acres of prime timberland near Heber-Overgaard and Show Low.
The highly popular recreation and sports program that has long been the highlight of the summer for young people was shut down so evacuees could be cared for and housed in Rim Country Middle School gymnasium. The program, which is sponsored by the Town of Payson Parks and Recreation Department, was being conducted in the gym.
The spirits of all involved in the fire received a huge boost when a pair of Arizona Cardinals players, professional cheerleaders and the team's Big Red mascot visited the evacuation center.
The past year also saw Payson High School lose three of its coaches. Lady Longhorn soccer coach Linda Gibson resigned, as did girls basketball coach Shaun Hardt.
In December, PHS athletic director Dave Bradley surprisingly announced that the contract of football coach Steve Saben would not be renewed.
Local sports was thrust into the statewide spotlight when the Arizona State University Sun Devils football team conducted two practice sessions on the newly installed artificial surface playing field at Rumsey Park.
The year in sports as we reported it:
Jan. 4: Finishing with a 3-1 record, the Lady Longhorns (11-2 overall) played their way to a second-place finish in the Holiday Hoops Tournament. The only loss the Lady Horns suffered during the 16-team hardwood battle in Wilson Dome was a 58-32 defeat to two-time defending state champion Tuba City.
Jan. 25: It took the strong-willed efforts of Class 5A second-ranked Mesa Red Mountain to wrestle the Tim Van Horn Memorial Tournament championship away from the Longhorns. During the nine-team match held in Wilson Dome, Red Mountain racked up a tournament winning 325 points. With 295 1/2, the Longhorns finished second.
Feb. 12: A well-rested but inexperienced Payson High School boys basketball team began its pursuit of the Class 3A state championship in Flagstaff.
Feb. 20: A 60-43 quarterfinals loss Wednesday morning to Chandler Catholic Seton ended the Lady Longhorns' short-lived participation in the state tournament.
March 5: One of the most remarkable feats in Payson High School golf history was pulled off by a Longhorn golf team that was originally thought to be less talented than last year's state championship squad. At the seven-team East regional tournament on the Silver Creek course, the Longhorns set an 18-hole school record with a tally of 295.
March 22: The Lady Longhorn softball team defeated the Round Valley Elks 6-3, protecting their unblemished 4-0 region record while adding to their 8-1 overall record.
April 5: The burden of winning a fourth consecutive 3A state track championship fell squarely on the shoulders of two distance runners, one sprinter and a trio of relay teams. All of those -- which included Whitney Hardt, Leighann Haynes, Michelle Closs and the 400-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter relay teams -- were ranked among the 3A conference's best.
April 19: If Pahrump, Nev. has a claim to fame, other than it once was the site of above-ground atomic testing, it's the fact the town annually plays host to the Terrible Town 250 Off-Road Race. It was that four-wheeling adventure that drew the Rim country racing team of Warren Parton, Marty Rose and Casey Barnett. Contested April 9, Parton, Rose and Barnett finished first in the "Quad E" division.
May 14: Seton Catholic's softball team not only eliminated the Lady Longhorns from the state tournament, the team also captured the Arizona 3A state championship by defeating Sahuarita 6-2. Seton beat Payson 5-0.
May 21: If track and field experts' predictions come true, Payson might soon produce the town's first Olympic athlete. That standout is Payson High School running star Whitney Hardt who has impressed almost everyone in the state with her performances in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. Her long list of track accomplishments helped Hardt earn an invitation to participate at the Olympic Training Center.
May 28: Eastern Arizona College softball coach Katie McCluskey traveled to Payson from Thatcher to accept National Letters of Intent from Payson High seniors LeeAnn Owens and Brandi Waugh. Owens and Waugh will attend EAC in the fall and participate in the school's softball program.
June 4: There's no secret to PHS sophomore Brenna Zumbro's pitching success, which has led to her being named a member of the 3A All-State softball team. A strong work ethic, that included traveling back and forth to Phoenix where she played club ball, helped mold Zumbro into one of the best fast-pitch hurlers in the state.
June 14: Clifford and Alicia Pirch's angling expertise earned their family $1,885 including bonuses. The Rim country couple pocketed that amount for their third-place finish at the AllStar Bass Couples Tournament June 9 at Roosevelt Lake.
June 25: Lady Longhorn basketball coach Shaun Hardt announced that he would be resigning his position to become head football coach at Round Valley High School in Eagar/Springerville.
June 27: The spirits of more than 800 displaced residents of Heber, Overgaard and Forest Lakes were lifted by a visit from a pair of professional football players and the Arizona Cardinals cheerleaders. For more than a hour, Cardinals players Andy Bowers, Marion Fatfehli, the cheerleaders and the Big Red mascot mingled in the Rim Country Middle School gymnasium with evacuees from the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
July 9: The Payson Major League (11- to 12-year-olds) Little League All-Stars were on the verge of advancing to the District One championships. To advance, all the local stars needed was a victory over Flagstaff Continental at Flagstaff Mount Elden field. The win, however, never occurred, and the team never reached the District One title game.
July 23: As one of the most accomplished athletes in the history of the Payson High School baseball program, 18-year-old Ky Bradley announced that he would be taking his act to the campus of Yavapai College in Prescott. His rookie stint with the Roughriders begins Aug. 26 with fall practices.
July 26: The Payson Unified School District governing board selected a Phoenix company to complete the long-awaited construction of the all-weather track surface at the high school.
Aug. 2: Fierce and frequent competition highlighted the July agenda of the Tonto Apache Track and Field team. During the month, squad members competed in the Junior Olympics Region 10 championships in El Paso, Texas, the Junior Olympic National Championships in Omaha, Neb., and the Grand Canyon State Native American Games in Flagstaff.
Aug. 23: Rodeo contractor Roy Honeycutt's corral of roughstock provided plenty of spills and thrills for cowboys hoping to pocket prize money during the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo. During the first two performances, not one cowboy could stay aboard Honeycutt's fierce bulls.
Aug. 27: Randy Wilcox has known his share of sporting challenges. In Payson, he served a two-year stint as the head of the Longhorn basketball program, was a junior varsity assistant and has coached numerous Rim Country Middle School teams. Although he's a tested veteran, Wilcox will be the first to admit he was facing new challenges replacing Linda Gibson as the head coach of the Lady Horns soccer team.
Sept. 6: In her second year as a varsity head coach, Chris Schwind faced the task of rebuilding almost her entire Lady Longhorn volleyball team. When preseason drills opened Aug. 5, Schwind had just two veteran letter winners to provide leadership and stability.
Sept. 17: Shrewd coaching and a bit of luck propelled the Longhorns to what might have been the team's biggest win since defeating Blue Ridge in the 1998 state championship. Switching Waylon Pettet to safety from cornerback and Wickenburg's two dropped screen passes that appeared likely to go for touchdowns, highlighted the Longhorns' 37-15 win over Wickenburg.
Oct. 4: Snowflake's 31-24 homecoming win over Payson lifted the Lobos into sole possession of first place in the East region standings.
Oct. 11: Hoping to sew up a berth in the state tournament, the Longhorn boys soccer team hosted Round Valley Oct. 16 at Rumsey Park. A win over the regional rival Elks would be a giant step toward play in the postseason clash that begins Nov. 1. Payson edged Round Valley 1-0, and went on to three-way tie for the Rim Region championship with Blue Ridge and Show Low.
Oct. 24: A controversial decision by Class 4A athletic directors to place Payson High School in the North region will be appealed. Only two days after new 4A member Payson was slotted in the North with Mingus, Page, Chinle, and three Flagstaff schools, PHS officials and members of the governing board decided the placement was not in the best interest of the school or its athletes.
Oct. 27: The Payson Mayor's Cup Mountain Bike Race -- once one of the premier sporting events in the Rim country -- might be regaining some of its old luster. Longtime mountain biking guru Dan Basinski teamed up with Manzanita Cyclery owner Kelly Martin to stage a National Off-Road Bicycle Association-sanctioned race on a six-mile Star Valley loop course.
Nov. 9: After a hard-fought, scoreless game that went into two 10-minute overtimes, Payson and Sedona were crowned Class 1A-3A state boys soccer co-champions. In the state finale at Tucson Udall Park, Longhorn goalkeeper Mark Hillegas was the stopper Payson needed to keep the Sedona offense at bay.
Nov. 22: Several changes took place in the Lady Longhorn basketball program. Earlier this year, Shaun Hardt was the head coach of a team that was coming off the most successful season (21-8) in the history of the program. Michelle Closs had just earned the "Spark Plug" award for spirited play and Brandi Waugh was celebrating the Most Valuable Player award that she shared with Whitney Hardt.
When practices began in early November, Shaun Hardt, Whitney Hardt, Closs and Waugh were nowhere to be found. The Hardts moved to Round Valley and Closs and Waugh graduated last spring.
Dec. 6: Battling 4A and 5A powers in what is known as "Arizona's premier Dual Meet Tournament," Longhorn wrestlers produced three weight-class champions, compiled a 7-2 record and finished fourth in the 16-team field. The Horns showing in the 17th Annual Warrior Kick Off Classic at Mesa Westwood High showed that Payson can wrestle with the best teams in the state, regardless of school size classification.
Dec. 10: A foursome of Lady Longhorn soccer players were named to the All-Rim Region soccer first team. The four -- along with second team selections and those who were named honorable mention -- were presented certificates by coach Randy Wilcox at the team's season-ending awards banquet held at Payson Elementary School. Kelsea Palace, Jenny Cohen, Trista Carlton and Amy Wilcox were named first team. Second team members included Laura Crabtree, Megan Branstetter and Kody Kepp. Hailee Byler and Lori Shepherd were named honorable mention.
Dec. 24: Athletic Director Dave Bradley announced that the contract of second-year varsity football coach Steve Saben would not be renewed. Citing Saben's removal a personnel issue and not a public one, Bradley said, "We felt the football program needed to go in a different direction."