In Whitney Hardt's finest hour, she didn't forget her Rim country roots.
Last week, just after the 18-year-old three-sport star officially accepted Arizona State University's full-ride scholarship offer, she gave "special thanks to all the people in Payson who supported me in my track travels and adventures."
Because of their support, she added, "I have been allowed great opportunities."
Hardt also thanked her uncle Chuck Hardt "for all the hard work and dedication in the years he worked with me."
Chuck, a longtime Payson High School track and cross country coach, tutored his niece for several seasons before the family moved two years ago from Payson to Eagar/Springerville.
As a student at Rim Country Middle School and during her freshman and sophomore years at PHS, Hardt developed into the most accomplished long distance runner in Rim country sports history.
She carried on her storied exploits as a junior and senior at Round Valley High School.
Her accomplishments in track and cross country earned her one of the most lucrative scholarships that can be doled out to an NCAA Division I athlete.
"It's a great scholarship," said her mother Ellie, who also coached Hardt during her final two years at RVHS.
The ASU athletic offer includes tuition, room, board, books and a "University Scholarship" that affords her an additional $1,500 per year.
It's difficult to put a dollar value on scholarships, but over the course of four years at Arizona State, it could be worth more than $60,000.
Hardt's decision to sign with ASU came after she participated in the five recruiting visits NCAA rules allow high school seniors.
In addition to Arizona State, she visited the campuses of Brigham Young University, Utah, Colorado State and Colorado.
"It came down to BYU and ASU," Ellie Hardt said. "She choose ASU to stay closer to her family and her Arizona following."
Signing with the Sun Devils brought a welcome sigh of relief from both Hardt and her mother.
"To be honest, I'm glad it's over," Ellie said. "(Recruiting) can be stressful. Whitney was worn out from the traveling and the recruiting process."
At Arizona State, Hardt will participate on both the Sun Devil cross country and track and field teams.
State runner of the year
Her signing with ASU came only days before she was named The Arizona Republic's "Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year."
That honor is a huge accomplishment for a small school athlete in that she beat out some of the state's finest runners including Annie Falor (Flagstaff), Keara Sammons (Tempe Desert Vista), Kristin Phillips (Tempe Mountain Pointe) and Trisha Rasmussen (Glendale Mountain Ridge).
Hardt became a strong candidate for The Arizona Republic honors at the Class 3A state championships last month at Anthem. There, she posted the best time of the day for a female runner covering the 3.1-mile course in 19:03.
Turning in a quicker ET than the more heralded runners from 4A and 5A Valley schools was a thrill for Hardt.
"It was a good feeling to be the fastest time," she said.
Early in the season at the Flagstaff Peaks Invitational, Hardt ran a 19:06 5K to finish second behind Desert Vista's Sammons. Later in the campaign, she won the Winslow, Blue Ridge, Round Valley and Albuquerque Academy Invitationals.
All four years of high school, she was named the 3A runner of the year and to the All-Arizona cross country team. At the conclusion of this season, the Arizona Track and Cross Country Coaches Association chose her their Runner of the Year.
In track and field, she holds the 3A state records in the 800 (2:14), 1,600 (4:54) and 3,200 meters (10:50). She also was a two-time state champion in all three events.
As a member of the 4x800 relay teams at both Payson High and Round Valley, she anchored the foursomes to three state championships.
She also was named the past three seasons the 3A Track and field Runner of the Year and to the All-Arizona team.
Her successes in long distance running comes as no surprise to friends in Payson who remember the teen, as early as a third-grader, had an unwavering dedication to the sport.
When many elementary and junior high school PE students were lobbying to get out of the mile run, she could be found legging around the track hoping to set a personal record.
Former teachers, coaches and fans also recall her to have been a modest, unassuming youngster who took her considerable successes in stride.
Shining on the hardwood
Hardt's athletic exploits were not limited to running.
As a basketball player at PHS and RVHS, she earned all-region first team laurels two consecutive years and was all-state last season. Also last year, she led the Elks to the Class 3A state championship and an undefeated season.
In Payson and Round Valley, she built a reputation as a hard-nosed player who got the most out of her athletic ability.
With her high school career about at an end, Hardt says she is looking forward to the challenge of competing on the division level.
For Ellie, the thought of her daughter moving away from home is a bit frightening.
"I'm sure I'm going to be sick," she said. "But, she's grown up to be a really great young lady who is ready to go on to college. And, she's going that far away."