During the 2002-03 school year, a family of shooting stars orbited a remote, off-and-on track program in rural eastern Arizona.
The result: a continuation of state dominance for one of Arizona’s all-time top distance runners, a state championship for Round Valley High School girls track and field, another state title in basketball, and a pair of track and field records that still stand.
When Round Valley hired Shaun Hardt to be the Elks’ head football coach in 2002, he, wife Ellie and daughters Whitney and Kari moved from their home in Payson to Eagar. In the fall of ’02, Round Valley revived a cross country program that had once seen success, and installed Ellie as the head coach.
As a sophomore, Whitney Hardt had won both the 1600 and 3200 meter runs, leading Payson to second overall at the 3A Track and Field Championships in May of 2002.
After the Hardts moved to Round Valley, Whitney began winning cross-country events with Kari, a freshman, her nearest rival. They went on to finish first and second in the 3A Cross Country Championships that fall.
Then after Whitney helped lead the Lady Elks to a 31-1 record and the 2003 3A basketball title in February, she prepared to defend her championships in distance races as the 2003 track and field season began.
At the state meet at Queen Creek High School on May 16-17, 2003, the Round Valley girls dominated and won the state championship with 121 points, far ahead of second-place Snowflake with 72.5.
Whitney Hardt won all four of her events in her junior year — the 1600 and 3200 for the second consecutive year, the 800, and she ran the third leg on the Lady Elks’ first-place, record-setting 4X800 team.
Kari Hardt, who was also on the winning 4x800 team, finished second in the 1600 and 3200, and she was third in the 800.
Brooke Bennett, a senior and also a member of the 4x800 team, was third in the 3200 (giving the Elks a 1-2-3 sweep in the event), fourth in the 1600 and sixth in the 800.
In those four events alone, the Lady Elks racked up 76 of their 121 total points. Round Valley could have won the championship on just those four distance races, but poured it on with Leticia Austin winning the pole vault, Jana Bingham and Shelby Bennett second and third, respectively, in the shot, and Cassandra Ping third and fourth, respectively, in the long jump and triple jump, as well as fourth in the 300 hurdles. Shelby Bennett was also fifth in the discus.
Brooke Bennett and the Hardts teamed with Ping, Austin and Danica Donaldson all season in the 4x800. At the state finals, the team won the event in a time of 9 minutes, 38.11 seconds, eclipsing Payson’s record from two years earlier by more than 3 1/2 seconds. The record still stands after 17 years.
Whitney Hardt’s winning time of 5:08.53 in the 1600 was more than three seconds off her 2002 record time for a 3A final.
Whitney’s winning time of 11:32.57 in the 3200 was more than 26 seconds slower than her winning time the year before. She set the record for a state meet with an 11:06.49 as a Longhorn in the 2002 finals.
But during the 2003 season, she ran the 3200 in 10:50.03 to set the 3A/Division 3 state record — one that still stands.
The 2003 championship is the most recent of Round Valley’s two state track and field titles — the first was a 2A title in 1975, the second year for an AIA state meet in 2A.
The Elks had successful track-and-field/cross-country programs in the early- to mid-1990s, led by Sarah Parker and the Bosen triplets, Kim, Madeline and Tonya — all distance runners. All four ran collegiately. Parkey and Kim Bosen shared in multiple national titles and became NCAA Division 2 All-Americans at Adams State College in Alamosa Colo.
After the Bosens left, Round Valley did not field a cross country team until 2002, when the Hardts came.
The program did not continue after 2002-03. The Hardts moved to Queen Creek High, where Whitney and Kari continued their winning ways and their parents continued coaching.
Whitney and Kari combined to win four events and led Queen Creek to the 3A state track and field title in 2004. Kari also led Queen Creek to the 2005 title for the Bulldogs’ third state title in four years.
After a four-year career at three high schools, Whitney Hardt signed with Arizona State University where she competed in both cross country and track.