Had the Arizona Interscholastic Association not done away last fall with the conference-region classifications in favor of a division-section alignment, the Payson High School cross country teams would probably be preparing for the 3A state championships.
But in the new alignment, both the boys and girls teams failed to qualify for the state finals mostly because of the stiffer competition created by more teams, some of them from the 4A ranks, in the new configuration.
When the two PHS teams advanced to the Division III Sectional II finals held Oct. 29 at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, the runners found themselves pitted against athletes from former Class 4A Division II schools and runners from the highly competitive Northern Arizona reservation high schools where the sport is a way of life.
In the sectional meet 17 teams competed. In the East Region design of the past decade, Payson athletes would be competing against only five other teams.
What resulted from the increased competition and the larger number of teams is that the boys finished 13th and the girls fell to 14th.
At the D-III Section II meet, the Longhorn boys compiled 390 points to best only three former East rivals, Snowflake, Show Low and Alchesay, and Chino Valley of the now defunct 3A West. As anticipated, the reservation teams and those from the old 4A II ranks dominated with Chinle taking first, Flagstaff second and Tuba City third.
The Lady Horns amassed 331 points to finish ahead of only Monument Valley (402) and Chino Valley (426). In the battle for the sectional title, Chinle (51) slipped past runner-up Page (58). Flagstaff (74) was third.
Individually, Ezra White turned in Payson’s best effort among the boys with his 54th place in the 111-runner field. White was clocked in 18:09.5 over the 3-mile course. Dawson Beeson was second among the Payson runners and 77th overall in 19:25.5.
Tanner Hodges was 82nd in 19:37.8 and Trent Hodges took 84th in 19:42.
In the 105-runner girls field, Lady Horn Jacquelyn Oesterblad claimed 51st in 22:40.3.
Payson sophomore Ashley Spear was 62nd in 23:27.5 and teammate Madi Flake ran to 66th in 23:36.3.
Running an ET of 24:08.4 Longhorn Sarah Cluff was 73rd.
Lauren Nossek took 86th covering the high altitude course in 24:59.8.
The bottom line in the new configuration is the competition got much stiffer for the former 3A East schools just as PHS cross country coach Jonathan Ball had predicted.
Some coaches expect the qualifying runners from the D-III Section II meet is to dominate the so-called state championship when it is held tomorrow.
This year, cross country is the only sport participating in the new alignment. Next year, all sports will move to the divisional-sectional format from the conference-region configuration.