Willie Nelson’s country and western hit song, “On the Road Again” could easily serve as the Payson High School cross country team’s theme song.
The country crooner sang, “like a band of gypsies we go down the highway” which is exactly what the Longhorn teams have done since the 2009 season tipped off Sept. 5 in Tempe. Rendering the PHS teams true vagabonds was a schedule that featured only one home meet, Sept. 9 at Payson Golf Course.
The team’s longest jaunt was Oct. 17 to Albuquerque, N.M. where Payson competed in the Rio Rancho Invitational.
The long-distance treks continue today, Oct. 23, with the boys and girls teams traveling to Holbrook for the Roadrunner Invitational.
On Oct. 30 the teams bus to Whiteriver to compete in the all-important the 3A East qualifier and on Nov. 7 will be in the Valley for the state championships.
With all those journeys, it’s understandable why the sport is called “cross country.”
First-year coach Jonathan Ball is calling the trip to the Rio Rancho Invitational, a school at which he once coached before moving to Payson, a “program-builder that gave the kids a chance to bond and really get to know each other.”
Although the Lady Horns didn’t do as well as they hoped, finishing 14th among the 31 teams participating, the girls were “really excited about being there and had a great time,” Ball said.
At the 15-school Holbrook meet, the PHS teams will face only two other East Region schools — Alchesay and Snowflake.
However, the field will include many of the Northern Arizona reservation teams, including Chinle and Tuba City, that are homes to some of the fastest and best conditioned athletes in the state.
“It will be a real test for us,” Ball said.
For the fray, Payson will enter two girls teams — a varsity squad and a junior varsity group that will compete in the open division.
For the 3A East qualifier, the coach is predicting the girls could challenge for the regional title but the boys’ outcome is up for grabs.
“We could finish anywhere from second to fifth,” Ball.
If the Longhorns fall to fifth, the team would not qualify for the following week’s state showdown because only the top-four finishers earn state berths.
“It will really be nice to take two teams (to state),” said Ball.
Among the Lady Horns’ top runners and those expected to shoulder the load down the road are Jacquelyn Oesterblad, Ashley Spear, Madi Flake, Lucy Schouten and Iris Molina.
Tanner Hodges, Aman Sharma, Michael Scott and Zeke Brooks are expected to lead the boys’ effort as the season winds down.