Horns To Host Long-Awaited Track Meet

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Senior members of the Longhorn boys and girls track teams vaguely remember competing on the Payson High School track.

The group's only home meet experience occurred during their freshmen season when they participated in the Payson Rotary Freshman-Sophomore Invitational.

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Payson High School track and field team members Jake Swartwood (left) and Chris Donaldson practiced their events Monday in preparation for tomorrow's meet against the Snowflake Lobos. In addition to hurdling, both Swartwood and Donaldson could enter the high-jump event. As seniors, coaches are counting on the pair to contribute leadership to the team effort.

Since that clash, no home meets have been held due to the deteriorating condition of the PHS track surface.

The Rim country track and field drought comes to a much-welcomed end at 3 p.m. tomorrow (Wednesday) when Payson plays host to the Snowflake Lobos on the newly installed all-weather surface at PHS.

Thanks to the Credit for Kids tax program and a sizable donation from the Tonto Apaches, the state-of-the-art running surface was completed last summer.

With the new track now a reality, veteran athletes on the team are eagerly anticipating the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of family and friends.

"They are really excited about it," coach Chuck Hardt said. "Maybe the only ones more excited are their parents -- they don't have to travel all over the state any more."

"We are all looking forward to running on it -- it's very fast," athlete Jake Swartwood said. "It sure is a lot better than what we used to have."

In addition to tomorrow's competition, home meets will be held March 26 (against Seton Catholic), April 2 (against Round Valley, Blue Ridge and Holbrook), April 11 (against Flagstaff Sinagua and Winslow), April 23 (against Mingus, Estrella Foothills and Grand Island, New York), April 26 (Rotary Invitational) and April 29 vs. Flagstaff.

The April 11 meet will also include Rim Country Middle School competition versus White Mountain League schools.

The New York team slated to compete April 23 was drawn to Payson by the presence of PHS volunteer coach Chuck Yale. Now retired, Yale formerly coached track and field in Grand Island.

"Chuck invited them to come and we are looking forward to it," Hardt said.

An added bonus to Payson High's being able to host track and field meets should be felt in the athletic budget.

"With seven home meets, that mounts up to a lot of savings in travel expenses," Hardt said.

Lady Horns in hunt for seventh title

This season, Lady Longhorn track team will begin pursuit of a sixth consecutive regional championship. Last year, the Lady Longhorns also finished as the Class 3A state runners-up.

If the team is to earn a seventh East title, it will have to do it without the services of some talented athletes who graduated last spring. Leighanne Haynes, Amy Davis and Michelle Closs are among the departed stars who helped Payson shine.

The Lady Horns also lost the services of long distance star Whitney Hardt when her family moved to Eagar/Springerville last summer.

About 30 girls turned out for the Lady Longhorn squad when preseason practices began in February. Among the contingent were several veterans who will be counted on to provide both leadership and team points.

Haylee Huff returns to the PHS fold as a member of last season's 4x100 state champion relay team. Huff also is expected to compete in the 300 hurdles.

Also returning are middle distance stalwarts Autumn Herrera and Jenny Cohen. Both ran legs on the Lady Longhorn 4x800 relay team that last season set a state record of 9:51.78.

Other letter winners include Hillary Hardt (shot-put and discus), Brittney Owens (300 hurdles), Becca Easton (300 hurdles), Jennifer Vandruff (shot-put and discus), Kody Kepp (shot-put and discus), Kari Flake (shot-put and discus) and Shay McGee.

Last spring, McGee was sidelined after breaking her foot in a hurdles mishap. Although the 300-meter hurdles is probably her best event, coaches are holding her out of the competition to avoid a repeat of the injury. McGee's contributions this season could be as a sprinter rather than a hurdler.

In addition to a core of veteran athletes, the Lady Longhorn roster sports a talented group of freshman that could contribute points to the varsity cause.

If the Lady Horns are to continue their winning ways in the East chase, they will have to overcome a strong Round Valley team that Hardt says is the region championship favorite.

Boys lineup talented, deep

While the Lady Horns could be underdogs in the pursuit of a championship, the boys team is projected to be a solid contender for East honors.

"I think we will be the favorites (to win the East)," Hardt said. "But Blue Ridge and Snowflake will also be tough."

Hardt's optimism is fueled by the presence of a several gifted athletes who could round into the state's best in their events, including senior Chris Donaldson, who will compete in the 110 and 300 hurdles, as well as the high jump.

In the shot-put and discus, senior Lucas Schmidt could be a contender for regional and state honors.

Senior pole vaulter Alex Cassuto appears to be back in full form after recovering from a foot injury suffered in a boating accident two years ago. Immediately after the injury, some were concerned that Cassuto might never compete again in track and field. After extensive rehabilitation, Cassuto has returned to his previous form. He vaulted last week more than 14 feet and is expected to go even higher as the season wears on.

In the distance events and the 4x800 relay, Dustin Rogers, Joe Behrens, Tanner Morgan and Brian Langeliers are all talented runners who bring to the lineup the experience of having competed the past several years in cross country. Last week, Morgan set a personal 3,200-meter record of 10:30.8. His previous best had been 11:06.

Other veterans include Josh Sprinkle (jumps, relay), Mike Orosco (pole vault, relay), Nicky Cassuto (jumps), Matt McCarty (pole vault) and Swartwood (hurdles, high jump).

Freshman sprinter Luke Apfel also is on the varsity roster. During the past football campaign, Apfel's ball-carrying abilities provided Payson fans with a glimpse of his blazing speed.

The coach also praised the entire freshman turnout of 17 athletes as "a great group who are going to contribute either this year or somewhere down the road."

The coaches

If awards were doled out for top-notch coaches, the Payson High staff would be on the receiving end of the accolades.

The core of the staff -- Pete Greer, Norm Langeliers and Hardt -- have been together since 1995 and are acknowledged in coaching circles as some of the best in Arizona.

Assistant coach Dan Reid led the Longhorns to several state titles in the late 1980s and early '90s. A former president of the Arizona Track Coaches Association, Reid is recognized nationally as an authority in most all running and jumping events.

Billy Joe Winchester, a former collegiate athlete, assists in both the shot-put and discus. Also helping in those events is former PHS star Jon Gunzel who holds the school discus record of 169 feet, 8 inches.

When ex-Payson High School pole vault star Bo Althoff can take time away from his Arizona Public Service job responsibilities in Camp Verde, he coaches the Longhorn vaulters. Althoff's school record of 16 feet, 5 inches ranks as the fourth best vault in Arizona track and field history.

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