PHOENIX — Abby Greenleaf wanted to improve on her performance in last year’s cross country state meet.
After finishing 35th in the state meet as a freshman, the Payson High sophomore was looking to move up in her return to Cave Creek Golf Course.
And she did just that.
Greenleaf moved up eight places, crossing in 27th place in 21:01.78. She cut 27 seconds off her time of 21:28.83 a year ago.
“I thought Abby ran real well,” said Payson coach Jonathan Ball. “Improvements — that’s what you ask for every year. A 27-second improvement over one season, without running in the summer due to surgery, is awesome.”
The season didn’t start well for Greenleaf because she had tonsillitis and underwent a tonsillectomy over the summer. She ran 25:40.90 in finishing 27th in the season-opening Payson Invitational.
Her coach said it’s impressive how much Greenleaf improved over the season.
“She was still overcoming the tonsils and she wasn’t practicing particularly well at that time,” Ball said. “And for her to just be able to turn it around and go from running 25 minutes to where she ran 20:13 in the middle of the season and she ran 21-flat on the state course, that shows you what type of person she is. She works hard. She dedicates herself. And it’s pretty cool to see someone do that.
“I didn’t know what to expect for Abigail because of the tonsillitis and surgery,” Ball said. “She had a real good solid cross country season last year. But then she was off and on in track. And that’s when she started getting sick.”
Greenleaf said it was difficult getting back to where she was physically.
“I had my tonsils removed in July,” she said. “I slept a lot and hurt. It took two weeks before I could run again. I just slowly had to build back up and keep going from there. It was pretty hard at first. I think it kind of took me all season to get to full strength.”
Greenleaf was one of only two Longhorns to qualify for last year’s state meet, along with then-sophomore Erin Huffman, who placed 21st in last year’s meet but didn’t qualify this season.
However, Payson qualified as a team for this year’s state meet for the first time in four years. And Greenleaf said having her teammates running the race with her made it a much better experience than it was a year ago.
“It’s pretty special because I get to be here with all my friends,” she said. “It’s different instead of just coming alone. It’s pretty cool. It’s one thing to run a race with your friends behind you or in front of you or with you and it’s another just to have to run it by yourself.”
The team features no seniors.
Sophomore Mackenzie Mann placed 75th in 22:22.26, followed by sophomore Anna Schouten (117th in 24:09.12), sophomore Storm Alexander (133rd in 25:31.36), junior Maizy Hall (134th in 25:43.36), sophomore Kara Van Zile (137th in 26:02.13) and junior Kiki York (155th in 30:43.19). A team’s top five finishers count in the team scoring.
Payson finished 15th among 22 teams with 447 points.
Ball said he hopes his young runners build on this experience.
“I think it was really important to qualify as a team because we hadn’t been since they moved to divisions (for the 2010 season),” the coach said. “It’s just been an uphill battle. So this was kind of a hump we got over.
“This is going to be a benchmark for us. So now what we do is we continue to try to focus in the next year to do better than this. So that’s the next step, to try to learn how to do that.”
Rio Rico claimed the team championship behind freshman Alexandra Schadler, who won in 18:38.18. Ganado sophomore Daangoiina Haven was second in 18:58.15 and sophomore teammate Nikesha Eagleman third in 18:58.19.
Rio Rico had five of the top 34 finishers in scoring 89 points. Cottonwood Mingus (132) was second, Page (149) third, Ganado (149) fourth and Tuba City (171) fifth.
Only four of the top 17 finishers were seniors.
Greenleaf was shooting for a better time but said she’s pleased with the performance.
“I wanted to place and I wanted to get into the 20-range,” she said. “But that’s OK. I ran 20:13 at the Twilight Invitational. But that’s at night and it’s cooler. I like the course there better. This one’s hilly. It’s so much pressure because it’s state and you have all these hills and it just tires you out.”
“I’m pretty happy I improved. I worked really hard. (Next year) I’m hoping to get down in the 20-range; maybe place. It’s always a goal,” she said.
The top 21 finishers medal.
She’ll be looking to continue the improvement as a junior.
“I hope I can just pick up from here and keep progressing,” Greenleaf said.
Ball said the experience is invaluable to the six runners competing in the state meet for the first time.
“I thought Mackenzie ran well,” he said. “She was fighting real hard. She kind of faded. Most of our girls were fighting real hard. You get caught up in this moment and out of your comfort zone and you’re like, ‘oh, I’m tired.’”
He said it he enjoyed watching his girls compete in the season’s biggest event.
“I’m just really proud of all of them,” Ball said. “We’ve run really well as a team. Mackenzie, Storm, Kara, Anna and Maizy have kind of been the glue to our team. We have a couple of others up in front, but you’ve got to have that back pack to move you up.”
And Ball said he was proud of the fact that York hung in there and kept running in only her second varsity race.
“She kept battling,” the coach said. “And she beat a couple of girls. She works just as hard as any of our other girls. So, for her to get rewarded like this, that’s pretty cool.”
Ball said the Longhorns should be better in 2014.
“We ran today with two juniors and five sophomores,” he said. “Being so young, hopefully this dedicates them to where they want to have a good summer; a better summer than last year. We had some kids have a good summer but other kids not. So, if we can come together during the summer, oh yeah, we can take another big step up.
“I think it makes them feel real good when they have some success. They taste this but then we’re towards the back (of the pack). So they’re like, ‘OK, now let’s get to work.’”
“It was awesome,” she said of her first experience at the state meet. “I like how our whole team went to state. And we all finished. I think it’ll just encourage us and help us push it harder next year. No one’s leaving. So we all can be here next year.”