The road to a team berth into the 4A state cross country tournament will be a rocky one for the Payson Longhorn boys.
The squad sports probably the most talented roster it has featured in the 10-year history of the program. But the Grand Canyon region -- of which Payson is a member -- has proven all season to be the most competitive in the state.
Currently, the Horns are ranked 20th in the state by the website arizonatrack.com. Those rankings include schools of all size classifications -- 1A to 5A.
Considering the number of Arizona high schools that compete in cross country, Payson's ranking is impressive.
The sour note in the ratings for Rim country sports fans is that a trio of 4A Grand Canyon region schools are ranked in front of the Longhorns. With an extremely talented crew of runners, No. 1 Page has been top-rated all season.
Also state ranked from the Canyon region are No. 7 Chinle and No. 16 Coconino.
Last season when Payson was a member of the 3A east region, having three teams ranked ahead of the Horns wouldn't have been a huge obstacle to state. That's because the East sent four teams to state and the Horns could have qualified with a minimum fourth-place showing.
This year as a 4A school, the Horns must finish among the top three in the region to earn a team berth to the state run.
The regional showdown that will determine the Grand Canyon's three state qualifiers is Nov. 1 in Flagstaff.
The 4A state championship is Nov. 8 at Anthem.
Payson's best chance at earning a state berth will be to find some way to edge out Coconino at the regional run. That would qualify Payson for state as a third-place team.
The most accurate bench mark of the individual Payson runners' chances at regionals can probably be summed up by the results of the Doug Conley Invitational Oct. 4 in Tempe. There, Page, Coconino, Chinle and Payson joined 16 other teams in an invitational that pitted the best of Arizona against one another.
The Longhorns top two finishers in the 159-runner field were Tanner Morgan (47th; 17:30) and Brian Langeliers (48th; 17:31).
In the final standings, eight Grand Canyon athletes finished in front of Morgan and Langeliers.
Five of the runners represented Page and two were from Chinle. Coconino had one.
Page's Fab Five include Leif Lomeland (2nd; 16:03), Levi Lomeland (12th; 16:32), Nathan Lee (18th; 16:48), Derrick Williams (39th; 17:19) and Donovan Tsinnijinnie (43rd; 17:24). Chinle's two representatives who out-dueled Morgan and Langeliers were Teo-Sean White (31st; 17:06) and Mike Heaton (37th; 17:12). Coconino had Aaron Nelson (24th; 16:55) in front of the two Longhorns.
If Morgan and Langeliers can team up to out-duel any of those eight runners in the regionals, it would be a huge boost for the Longhorns.
But, success at the Grand Canyon region run won't be measured by just two of Payson's runners. The remaining members of the team -- Dustin Rodgers, Joe Behrens and David Cluff --ill have to finish as high as possible in the final standings.
Coach Chuck Hardt has long advocated pack running as a key to success.
The philosophy is to place as many runners in a pack as close to the top of the standings as possible. That adds points to opposing team's scores and helps keep the Payson tally low.
If the Payson team cannot earn a team berth to state with a top-three Grand Canyon showing, individual runners can advance by virtue of top-15 finishes and the regional finals.