Payson High School track and field team members make their much-anticipated season debut Wednesday in Apache Junction.
The onset of the season is a blessing for the athletes mostly because they finally have the opportunity to showcase their skills in live competition after spending most of the preseason locked in tedious conditioning and technique drills.
Coach Chuck Hardt is unsure of which opponents will show up in Apache Junction but predicts most will be 4A or 5A Valley-area teams.
For the 34-member PHS boys team, senior high jumper Brian Schwind returns as the Class 4A Grand Canyon Region state champion.
This season, Schwind won't have the opportunity to defend his title since PHS is no longer a member of the GCR.
With PHS now in the 3A East region, Schwind will compete for region and state honors against an entirely new group of opponents.
Among the other returning veterans are Brandon Echols, Carlan Pontious and Carlos Lopez.
Last season, Echols qualified for the 4A 100-meter state finals where he finished 25th in 11.70.
Cluff, Lopez and Pontious return from last season's 4x800 relay team that finished 11th among the 26 4A state meet qualifiers.
Coach Chuck Hardt said he is searching the roster for a fourth team member to fill the vacancy created last spring with the graduation of Eric Monty.
If the Horns have a surprise weapon on their roster, it is sprinter Todd Kreimeyer.
In 2005, he was injured while hurdling and spent most of the campaign on the sidelines.
"He's worked hard in the off-season and has come back really strong," Hardt said. "His core strength is 30 to 40 percent stronger than last year."
In the throws events, the Horns feature Morgan Cassuto and Hunter Hardt. Although the two will compete in both the shot and discus, Hardt's strength is in the discus and Cassuto's in the shot put.
Cassuto is a surprise addition to the team, having given up baseball to take up track and field.
"He's throwing (the shot) really well," Hardt said.
The coach also lauded the freshmen throwers, saying the contingent has the potential to become some of the finest in the region.
The Lady Horns
Among the 14 athletes who turned out for the girls track and field team are four returning letter winners. They will be counted on to provide leadership for a talented freshmen group.
The veterans include Panda Stackhouse, Shanna Coleman, Janet Echols and Amy Buckner.
Last year, Stackhouse qualified for the 4A state meet after finishing third in the 400-meter dash at the GCR championships.
At state, she earned a berth in the event finals with an eighth place showing (1:05.59) in the preliminaries.
Although she didn't medal, Stackhouse stamped herself a reputation as an up-and-coming quarter miler.
Echols, a sophomore, qualified for the 2005 state meet as a member of the Lady Horns 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams. The relay foursomes also included Coleman and Buckner.
If the coaching staff can find fourth runners to fill out both teams, the two squads could again be state qualifiers.
In the throws events, the Lady Horns feature an athlete who has the potential to vie for the East region championship -- Sierra Sommars.
She has wowed the coaches with her efforts in preseason training.
"She just needs to get out there and start competing," Hardt said.
The PHS teams will not make their home debut until March 29 when Chino Valley visits for a dual meet, set to begin at 2 p.m.
The highlight of the home season could be the coed relay April 5. Five teams have committed to participate and more schools are expected to join the field.