The Payson High School cross country teams will be among the first in Arizona to compete in the postseason under the new “Division-Section” format rather than the “Region-Conference” that was used for decades.
In September, the Arizona Interscholastic Association mandated a realignment in which the former conference classification was replaced with divisions that were then subdivided into sections.
This school year, the realignment applies only to cross country, but next year will include all sports.
In cross country, Payson was placed in Division III along with 46 other teams, some of which are former 4A schools.
From Division III, Payson was aligned in the 17-team Section II.
With the cross country regular season at an end, the realignment will be tested in the first ever Division III, Section II cross country championships to be held today, Oct. 29, at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff.
What will be different about the sectional competition from the former regional meet is that many more teams will be involved.
When Payson was a member of the East Region, only six teams and about 30 runners competed in the regional, but in today’s sectional, there will be 17 teams and 100-plus athletes.
This means much more competition for the PHS team members.
However, there is a good chance Payson could qualify both boys and girls teams for the division championships because in the new alignment, the top one-half of the scoring teams (five or more runners) earn the right to advance.
The fly in the ointment, however, is that at sectionals, Payson will be competing against much tougher competition than the teams did in the former East Region.
Payson’s Section II includes some 4A schools and most of the Northern Arizona reservation teams, including Chinle, Ganado, Tuba City, Monument Valley and Window Rock, which annually produce some of the state’s finest long-distance runners. Athletes from most all of the former East schools will also be competing.
PHS coach Jonathan Ball is well aware of the increased competition his runners will face today in Flagstaff.
“We are going to have to raise our game and develop our program,” he said. “Although 50 percent of the teams will go to state, we don’t want to just go to state (division) — we want to make some noise.”
The division or so-called “state” tournaments, I through IV for both boys and girls, will be held Nov. 6 at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix.
The Division III boys run at 10 a.m. and the girls one-half hour later.
In announcing the realignment plan last year, AIA officials said that the new plan would cut travel time for school teams and reduce the number of state tournaments — both cost-saving moves.
At today’s sectional tournament, the Division III, Section II boys run at 2:30 p.m. the Division III, Section II girls at 3 p.m.
The Division IV, Section II finals are also being held at Buffalo Park, but will be conducted separate from Division III.
Division IV, Section II includes many of the former Class 2A schools including Camp Verde, Pinon, Valley Sanders and Mayer.
Sedona, a former 3A school, is also in the division.
Veteran Payson runners are no strangers to the Buffalo Park course as they’ve competed on it several times over the past few seasons.
It is a three-mile loop on hard-packed dirt with a challenging uphill run during the first 800 meters.
At the conclusion of the championships, medals will be awarded to the top 14 runners.
“It should be fun,” said assistant coach Chuck Yale, who is a retired head coach from a large high school in New York.
Individually among the Lady Horns, Jacquelyn Oesterblad, a senior co-captain, is expected to lead the PHS charge today in Flagstaff.
She was first at the Queen Creek Desert Twilight Festival in early October and first among Payson girls at Sludge to the Judge on Sept. 17.
Senior co-captain Lauren Nossek, also 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 finished third at Fountain Hills.
Sophomore Ashley Spear, who Yale calls “an up and coming runner,” should also be in the sectional mix as evidenced by her second-place finish (47th overall) among the Payson entrants at Queen Creek and her sixth-place effort at Fountain Hills.
Also expected to compete in sectionals for Payson are Madi Flake, Katie Schouten and Sarah Cluff.
Almost all of last season, the PHS boys team couldn’t field the minimum five runners to be eligible for a team score.
This meant the few boys 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.
At the Mt. Sac Invitational, held last week in California, White and Hodges only finished a few minutes apart.
The pair gives the Horns a solid 1-2 punch going into the sectionals.
Dawson Beeson, a freshman 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 was fifth overall, and Hodges took seventh.
Also representing Payson today will be Jamie Wadington, Trenton Hodges, and first-year runner Niyal Curi.