Payson High School's move to the 4A conference Grand Canyon region is of no significance to track and field coach Chuck Hardt, his staff and athletes.
"It's a non-issue," Hardt said. "The system we have set up in our program will work at any level."
Among the reasons the coach cited for the team's past success and anticipated future strength is strong leadership by veteran seniors who have been schooled in the sport for several seasons. Also, Hardt said quality coaches who specialize in their events is an important part of the program.
The leaders of the boys' team this season will be returning letter winners Joe Behrens, Tanner Morgan, Brian Langeliers, Dustin Rodgers, Austin Davis, Benny Hartnell and Alex Winchester Jr.
Sprinter Luke Apfel is only a sophomore, but he brings to the program a full year of varsity experience in which he competed in both regional and state championship meets. Last year, Apfel and his fellow letter winners led the Longhorns to the East regional championship and a third-place state finish.
The seniors who are projected to be among the conference's best this spring include Behrens and Morgan. Behrens' best event could be the 800-meter run which he has a personal best of 1:59.
Morgan, the cross country team's lone state qualifier last fall, has run the 3,200-meters in 10:04.
The coaches who are Norm Langeliers (sprints/hurdles), Jon Gunzel (throws), Carol Hayes (jumps), Hardt (jumps/distances) and four volunteers -- Dan Reid (throws/jumps), Chuck Yale (jumps/hurdles), Bo Althoff (pole vault) and Pete Greer (throws). The staff has years of experience and could be considered the most knowledgeable in the state.
Gunzel and Althoff are former Longhorn track and field standouts who have returned to the program to lend their expertise. Reid coached the Longhorn teams to several state championships in the late '80s and early '90s. He's also the past president of the Arizona Track Coaches Association and has studied under some of the finest Olympic coaches in the country.
While the veterans and the coaching staff will form the foundation of the boys team, it will be the newcomers who provide the valuable team points the Horns need to succeed.
Seniors participating in their first year of PHS track and field include Mike Barr (shot put/discus), Paul Burdette (shot put/discus), Tyler Danielson (sprints) and J.R. Szabo (shot put/discus/sprints).
Juniors out for the first year are Mike Waterman (shot put/discus) and Meril Weisser (jumps).
Sophomores Brain Schwind (jumps/hurdles) and David Cluff (distances) also are participating for the first time.
In assessing the 35 athletes who turned out for the sport when practices began three weeks ago, Hardt predicts the boys team will be strong in the long sprints, middle distances, throws and relays.
The team's weaknesses could be in the sprints and jumps.
"We need to develop some depth in those programs," he said.
A lack of depth in the sprints could be especially tough on the Horns now that PHS is a 4A school.
"We will see teams a lot deeper in the sprints (in 4A)," Hardt said.
The Longhorn sprinters who must rise to the occasion include Andy Sargent, Todd Kreimeyer, Apfel, Danielson, Hartnell and Szabo.
Because the Longhorns are 4A rookies, they will be the underdogs in most meets this season. A strong work ethic, however, could help them pull off a few upsets.
"The kids in our program are emotionally tough and understand that (track and field) is about setting goals and learning to deal with adversity to reach the goals," Hardt said.
As a 3A school, the coaching staff knew which teams would be strong at the beginning of the season. In 4A, the Longhorns have limited knowledge about their opponents.
Based on last year's results, the best teams could be Page, Coconino and Flagstaff. Page won the Grand Canyon title last spring with 126 points; Coconino (99) was second and Flagstaff third (98).
In the conference, the top-notch teams could be defending champion Centennial, 2003 runner-up Tolleson and third-place Tucson Catalina Foothills.
The new season will be off and running today (Tuesday) in an indoor multimeet to be at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.