There could be a changing of the guard on the Longhorn cross country team.
Last season, Carlan Pontious cemented himself most of the campaign as the Horns No. 1 runner.
This year however, David Cluff and Carlos Lopez -- the remaining two-thirds of the Thundering Three --ave stepped up in the pecking order to challenge Pontious as the team ace.
Hints that Pontious' top ranking might be in jeopardy surfaced Aug. 13 at the town-sponsored Monsoon 5K Run.
In it, Cluff turned in a remarkable performance, winning the men's championship in 17:59. Pontious (18:06), who fell down early in the race, was second and Lopez (18:56) third.
At the season-opening Payson Golf Course run Sept. 7, Pontious seemed to re-establish himself as the team's top gun finishing second -- five seconds behind Sinagua's Matt Markowski (17:59).
Cluff was third overall, just one second behind Pontious. Lopez (18:11) was fourth.
The drama continued to unfold Sept. 10 at the Sue Fletcher Classic in Sierra Vista. There, Cluff led Payson's Thundering Three with a fifth place finish in 16:47. Pontious was sixth (16:55) and Lopez eighth (17:12).
At the prestigious Four Corners Invitational Sept. 17 at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, Cluff made a case for being the team's new No. 1 runner by finishing 13th overall in 16:56. Pontious was 22nd (17:13) and Lopez 36th (17:32).
Just when it looked as if team rankings were to be Cluff, Pontious and Lopez, an upset of sorts occurred at a four-way meet Sept. 21 in Snowflake.
For the first time this season, Lopez outran his two heralded opponents, finishing second overall behind meet champion Matt Rowell of Blue Ridge. Lopez was clocked in 17:06, two seconds ahead of the third-place finishing Cluff. Pontious took fifth in 17:35.
As intense as the three-way battle between the Longhorn runners has been most of the season, the heat will be turned up a notch Sept. 30 at the Sludge to the Judge run along Main Street.
Pontious enters the homecoming event -- the Horns' premier run of the home schedule -- as the defending champion. His 2004 winning time of 13:01 broke the previous PHS record of 13:03 set in 2002 by Joe Behrens.
Pontious could have posted an even better time had he known where the finish line was located. Running on the south side of Main Street, he had to cross to the north during the final few meters to reach the finish. The unexpected detour added several precious seconds to his ET.
Cluff was fifth in 13:58 and Lopez did not compete due to the death of his grandfather.
With the 2005 Sludge to the Judge just over the horizon, Pontious will be out to defend his title and possibly set a new run record.
Lopez and Cluff will be equally focused on winning their first Sludge to the Judge crown.
As competitive as the rivalry between the trio is, the three continue to be good friends.
"It (the competition) is healthy," coach Chuck Hardt said. "They enjoy it, and it's good for them and for the rest of the team.
"Some others are stepping up because of what they see those three doing."
More Snowflake results
Finishing behind the Thundering Three at the Snowflake four-way varsity meet were Lee Perez (8th; 18:23), Bryson Addington (12th; 18:45), Jonny Malloy (20th; 20:03) and Daniel McGee (21st; 20:05). A field of 26 runners participated.
With a meet low 30 points, Payson claimed the championship. Blue Ridge was second with 38, Alchesay had 75 and cellar dweller Snowflake posted 87.
In junior varsity action, the Longhorn underclassmen (32) were a close second behind Alchesay (25).
Representing Payson were Robert Walker (second; 19:51), Tommy Ashby (fourth; 20:06), Max Sieverson (fifth; 20:24), Levi Neal (tenth; 21:23), Trevor Day (11th; 21:24), Ollie Lewinson (12th; 22:14), Pat Vlahovich (15th; 23:13), Brian Schwind (16th; 24:04), Jeff Day (17th; 24:58) and Matt Jones (20th; 26:01). A field of 22 junior varsity runners entered.
The Lady Horns
Because Payson did not field the mandatory five runners, the team did not receive a team score.
Leading the three Lady Horn entrants was sixth place finisher Alesha Huddlestun. Lana Cluff was seventh and Sarah Agnes 15th.
Huddlestun was timed in 22:15, Cluff in 22:35 and Agnes toured the course in 24:57. The winning time was 20:47.
The three Lady Horns will join their boys team counterparts at the Sludge to the Judge, set to begin about 1:45 p.m. Sept. 30. The race begins at the Northern Gila County Sanitary District plant and ends on Main Street near the Gila County offices.
Immediately after the run, the annual homecoming parade will begin.