The success of the Longhorn cross country team hinges on finding a solid fifth runner.
Veteran coach Chuck Hardt said he's reasonably certain he has four solid runners, but in prep cross country five runners are required for a team score.
Two weeks into preseason training, Hardt -- who founded the cross country program a decade ago -- is unsure who the fifth runner could be.
"It's up in the air right now," he said.
Jesus Hipolito, a senior newcomer, is in the running, as are freshmen Eldon Sieverson and Steve Hollingsworth.
Noah Sweet, Matt Jones, Isaac Cluff and Joe Schloesser are also in the mix to become the all-important fifth runner.
Cluff could be the missing ingredient if genes are taken into consideration.
Last season, his older brother, David, was one of the Longhorns' finest long distance runners who finished with a team high of 12th in the state championship meet. Since his graduation from PHS, David has taken his running act to Mesa College where he is a member of the Thunderbird's cross country squad.
Last year, Isaac played soccer, but has given it up for cross country, which he participated in two seasons ago as a freshman.
Payson's top three runners on the 11-member squad will undoubtedly be battle-tested veterans Carlan Pontious, Carlos Lopez and Bryson Addington.
Last year, Pontious and Lopez teamed with David Cluff to give the Horns a trio of the best runners in the East region and the 3A conference.
Lopez was 14th at the state meet, covering the 5K course in 18:01. Pontious finished 33rd in 18:48.
Addington took 83rd in 20:50.
Season-long efforts propelled the Longhorns to fifth place at state and second in the East region.
In the 2005 Sludge to the Judge homecoming run on Main Street, Pontious and Lopez staged one of the fiercest battles ever seen in the annual event.
Lopez eventually won, nipping his teammate at the finish line by less than a second.
Along with the talented trio in the 2006 lineup, Hardt is counting on sophomore Max Sieverson, a star on last year's standout freshman basketball team, becoming the fourth runner.
In assessing the crew of runners, Hardt says the team "has a shot at winning the East (championship)" but will have to fend off defending state champion Blue Ridge.
The Yellow Jackets have all their runners returning from last season except for defending 3A individual state champion Matt Rowell who graduated in the spring.
Also in the East, Alchesay traditionally fields strong teams and could be among those in the hunt for the region title.
The Horns will have the opportunity Sept. 6 to see the Yellow Jackets and Falcons up close and personal at the 3A East Preview cross country run at Payson Golf Course.
All of the region teams are expected to participate in the season opener.
The Horns travel Sept. 8 and 9 to Sierra Vista where they will participate in the Sue Fletcher Classic.
"It'll be a fun trip, we're going to tour Old Tucson and do some other things," Hardt said.
Another highlight of the season will be the Sludge to the Judge run on Sept. 22.
The annual meet is held in conjunction with PHS homecoming activities.
Immediately after the 1:45 p.m. run, which begins at the Gila County Sanitary Plant and ends near the county offices on Main and Beeline, the homecoming parade will be held on Main.
The cross country region championships are Oct. 27 in Show Low and the state meet Nov. 4 at Cave Creek Golf Course.
-- To reach Max Foster call 474-5251 ext. 114 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.