The monumental task facing cross country coach Chuck Hardt is finding replacements for "The Four Amigos" who graduated with the class of 2004.
The past three seasons, Dustin Rodgers, Brian Langeliers, Tanner Morgan and Joe Behrens have been the heart and soul of both the cross country and track and field teams.
Last spring, at the Chandler Invitational, the four set a school record (8:07.44) in the 4x800 relay. In cross country, the foursome was most always Payson's top finishers.
With the Amigos no longer on the roster, Hardt will ask the Horns No. 5, 6 and 7 runners from last year to step up and take over leadership roles.
David Cluff, Lance Chabot and Carlos Lopez open the campaign with the experience of having competed last fall in the Grand Canyon region championships.
Of the three, Lopez -- a sophomore -- proved he had the mettle to compete in the grueling sport at the Monsoon 5K held Aug. 7 at Green Valley Park. There, Lopez ran his way to a second place finish overall behind Page High School running sensation Levi Lomeland. Lomeland set an event record of 16:38. Lopez was clocked in 17:40.
During the fall campaign, Lopez and Lomeland will see more of each other since Page is aligned in the same Grand Canyon region as is Payson.
Cluff and Chabot did not compete in the Monsoon run. Hardt, however, praised Chabot for this dedicated off-season training program.
Longhorn running fortunes received a much-needed boost during the summer months when Carlan Pontious moved to Payson from Wisconsin.
After watching him finish third overall at the Monsoon 5K, Hardt is anticipating he could give the team the fourth varsity runner it needs to be successful in the 4A conference.
At the Monsoon, Pontious finished 11 seconds behind Lopez but might have labored a bit not being accustomed to Payson's elevation.
Lopez and Pontious both outdistanced the fourth-place Morgan who was the Longhorn's lone qualifier to the state meet last year.
If Cluff, Chabot, Lopez and Pontious can continue to improve and condition themselves, the Longhorns could have a solid nucleus of runners.
In early season workouts, Hardt put his charges through tempo runs at aerobic pace, swim training at Taylor Pool and long-distance conditioning runs that have extended for up to an hour.
Although 32 prospective runners turned out, even more continue to filter in.
Hardt said the lack of school-sponsored physical exams last spring as the reason for the late comers.
"They have to schedule their own (physicals) and some didn't get it done," he said.
The coach said defending state champion Page is a heavy favorite to repeat as region and 4A champions.
"They have so much talent," he said.
The Longhorns kick off the season Sept. 8 in a five-way meet at the Payson Golf Course.
On hand to participate along with the Horns will be Scottsdale Christian, Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Flagstaff Sinagua. Varsity start time is 3:30 p.m. A junior high/middle school run will begin at 2:30 p.m.
The only other home meet the team has this season is the Sludge to the Judge homecoming run Sept. 24 along Main Street.