With the Payson school district in fall break, cross country runners are taking a brief respite from their rigorous practice routines before returning to competition Oct. 13 at the Show Low Invitational.
And the break might be just what the long-distance runners need to refuel themselves for runs at sectional and state championships.
Team members have been practicing on a weekday basis since early August, and during the summer months they participated in evening conditioning runs with coach Jonathan Ball.
Since the onset of the season, both the boys and girls teams have turned in some impressive efforts in the six meets in which they have participated. Most impressive were the boys and girls team victories in the Fountain Hills Falcon Invitational held Sept 11.
Ball called the wins “the first time in long time that both teams swept an invitational.”
On Oct. 1 at the prestigious Queen Creek Desert Twilight Cross Country Festival, the Payson runners took on some of the finest teams in the state. The girls were eighth among 22 elite teams, and the boys were ninth in a 24-school field.
Individually among the Lady Horns, Jacquelyn Oesterblad, a senior co-captain, was first at Queen Creek and first among Payson girls at Sludge to the Judge on Sept. 17, but at the Fountain Hills meet could manage no better than 13th overall.
Lauren Nossek, also a senior co-captain, has been a contributing runner, taking 12th at Fountain Hills and 80th at Queen Creek.
Freshman Logan Conway appears to be loaded with talent, having finish third at Fountain Hills.
Ashley Spear can never be counted out, as evidenced by her second-place finish (47th overall) among the Payson entrants at Queen Creek and her sixth-place effort at Fountain Hills.
Of course, team success in cross country depends on having five runners place high in the final standings, accomplishing what coaches call “pack running.”
Using that strategy, runners try to run in groups to help the slower runners along, and possibly intimidate runners on other teams.
Also the higher the pack finishes, the more opposing runners are pushed down in the final standings resulting in a better team finish.
Former PHS coach Chuck Hardt, the founder of the cross country program, was a huge advocate of pack running.
Ball appears to be continuing that philosophy.
Since taking over the boys cross country program, Ball has called the team “a work in progress,” partly because last year the team couldn’t field the minimum five runners to be eligible for a team score.
Which meant, the few boy runners on the team had to compete as individuals or almost as “unattached” athletes.
This season, however, the boys have six runners, which prompted Ball to declare “We are getting now to the point where we can compete with a lot of teams.”
The clear leader most of the season has been Ezra White, who easily won the Sludge to the Judge homecoming run, the Fountain Hills Invitational and paced the Horns at Queen Creek with a 13th-place showing among 155 runners.
Ball lauds White as a “solid front runner” who has shown to have an extra burst at the end of a race that can carry him to a come from behind victory.
Also for the Horns, Tanner Hodges — a co-captain along with White — has shown well, finishing second among the Payson entrants at Queen Creek. He was 38th overall.
Dawson Beeson, who was listed on the jayvee roster at the start of the season, was third among the Payson athletes at Queen Creek.
At Fountain Hills, Beeson — only a freshman — was fifth overall, and Hodges took seventh.
Also representing Payson have been Jamie Wadington, Trenton Hodges, Michael Scott and Niyal Curi.
After the Show Low Invitational, the team travels Oct. 22 to Holbrook for the Roadrunner Invitational, which marks the end of the regular season and the onset of post season action.