Longhorn track and field teams will make their much-anticipated season debut Sept. 7 at Payson Golf Course with a boys' roster heavy with talented veterans, and a girls' team with just three members.
The three-way meet, which has drawn Mingus and Flagstaff Coconino, begins at 3:30 p.m. with a middle school run. The high school girls' event kicks off at 4:15 p.m., the boys follow shortly thereafter. Admission is free.
For the Lady Horns, just three runners -- Alesha Huddlestun, Sarah Agnes and Lana Cluff -- turned out for the team when practices began in early August.
The lack of participation puzzled coach Chuck Hardt, who wondered why a program, which only a few years ago battled for the state championship, could not draw enough runners to fill out a complete team.
One of the expected returnees, Shanna Coleman, opted this season for soccer rather than cross country.
Last school year when Payson was a Class 4A high school, Coleman and others could compete in both sports because they are conducted in different seasons.
With Payson's return to 3A, however, soccer and cross country are fall sports and student-athletes must choose between the two.
Although the Lady Horns will be out-numbered all season long, the returning trio is experienced.
Last season, the three competed in several highly competitive meets, including the Four Corners Invitational, the Sandra Day O'Connor showdown and the Grand Canyon Region Championships.
At the Aug. 13 Monsoon 5K run in Green Valley Park, Cluff finished third among the women runners, 18th overall, in 24:37.
Huddlestun and Agnes did not enter the run.
With another year of seasoning and maturity behind them, the trio could be on the cusp of break-out seasons.
The fate of the Longhorn boys' team could hinge on the efforts of Carlan Pontious, David Cluff and Carlos Lopez.
The threesome is expected to be among the best in the 3A East and could have the talent to lead the Horns to a region title and into the state meet.
Last spring, Pontious, Lopez and Cluff were Payson's long-distance running stalwarts and three-fourths of the 4x800 relay team that finished 11th at the 4A state championship meet.
Pontious is the defending Sludge to the Judge Homecoming Run champion and was a second-place finisher last season in the Queen Creek Invitational.
The rapidly improving Cluff proved he's going to be a force to reckon with this season by winning the overall championship of the Monsoon 5K. Pontious was second and Lopez third.
Lopez admitted his favorite sport is basketball, but once he takes to the cross country paths, he can be counted on to give an all-out effort.
In addition to the talented trio, the Horns have several other runners who could contribute to the PHS cause. They include Tommy Ashby, Bryson Addington, Oliver Lewinson, Hunter Hardt and Brian Schwind.
Following the team's debut at Payson Golf Course, the Horns travel Sept. 9 to the Sue Fletcher Classic in Sierra Vista.
At the Four Corners Invitational Sept. 17 in Flagstaff, PHS will lock horns with some of the finest athletes in the state, including some highly talented runners from tough northern Arizona reservation teams.