In 2010 , the Payson High cross country runners realized in the fall that the Arizona Interscholastic Association-mandated school realignment from the previous region-conference configuration to sections-divisions was spelling the death knoll of their hopes of advancing to the state showdown.
The situation might not get any better this year because the teams are aligned, as they were last year, in one of the most competitive sections in the state.
It includes some previous Class 4A powerhouse high schools along with most all the northern Arizona reservation schools where running is a way of life and cross country titles are to be expected.
But before we look ahead, let’s check back to last fall and recall what it was that thwarted Horn state hopes.
In the new alignment, which began for cross country and other individual sports at the onset of the 2010-2011 school year, 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 in October 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 that annually produce some of the state’s finest runners.
Also, 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. The result — neither went to state.
At the section championships, the Longhorn boys bested in the final standings only three former East rivals — Snowflake, Show Low and Alchesay, and Chino Valley of the now defunct 3A West. The Lady Horns finished in the standings ahead of only Monument Valley and Chino Valley.
This season, Payson is aligned in Division III, Section I, but with many of the same schools that dominated in 2010-2011 including Chinle, Tuba City and Page. Which means, if the cross country teams are to have any hopes of reaching the state promised land, the runners will have to step it up a notch.
The good news is the team includes some veterans who might now have the experience and maturity to succeed against the former 4A and reservation schools.
They include Ashley Spear, Jamie Wadington, Dawson Beeson, Logan Conway, Nijal Curi and Sara Cluff.
Spear returns to the team oozing with promise and buoyed by her success in track and field and cross country. At the Blue Ridge Invitational last spring, she turned in the Lady Horns’ fastest time in the 1600 and 3200 meters. Her teammate Conway trailed Spear in the 3200 by just 19 seconds. At the Chuck Hardt Coed Relay Festival in April, Conway won the 800 girls open event and Spear was third.
In the boys open 800, Beeson was first and also won the 1600 open.
With the lineups set, the two PHS teams begin pursuit of 2011-2012 honors Saturday, Sept. 3 at Tempe Kiwanis Park in a meet hosted by Marcos de Niza High School.
The teams’ lone home meet is the Payson Multi-meet set for Wednesday, Sept. 7 at Payson Golf Course.