Now that the football season has culminated with a Class 3A state championship, many fans will turn their attention to wrestling hoping for a chance at another Payson High School state crown.
The wrestling team's road to eight previous state championships has always been paved with a highly competitive schedule that includes state-ranked Class 4A and 5A schools hungering to humble tiny Payson as if the school was a wrestling stepchild.
But this year's schedule features the most competitive four-way meet ever to grace a Longhorn agenda.
The Horns will travel to Tucson Dec. 12, where they'll challenge Arizona's two best Class 5A teams -- one of them nationally ranked, and a top-rated school from Texas.
Never in the storied history of the Horns mat program that has built a 302-40 record have the Longhorns ventured south to take on such heralded bad boys of the big school ranks.
The field includes Tucson Sunnyside, Tucson Salpointe, El Paso, Texas Hanks and Payson.
Sunnyside has dominated the 4A and 5A ranks winning 16 big-school state wrestling championships in the past 20 years. The team sports six nationally ranked wrestlers in the line-up and is rated the best high school team in the western United States by wrestling publications.
As potent as Sunnyside is, Salpointe might be even more overpowering.
The Lancers, PHS coach Dennis Pirch said, have more state placers returning to their lineup for 1998-99 season than Sunnyside.
Also, Salpointe is predicted in coach's polls to win the 5A state championship this season.
Hanks is ranked as one of the top four big school teams in Texas and should have a formidable team, Pirch predicted.
Pirch said it was officials at Salpointe that put together such a powerful meet for the early season. But, the coach acknowledges, he and PHS Athletic Director Barry Smith were anxious to accept the invitation.
"It will be a good reality check," Pirch said.
Set to rebuild
Such a rugged meet might have been a tad easier for the Horns to handle last season when the team boasted of six seniors with strong leadership skills.
The 1997-98 Longhorns rolled unchecked through the Central Division regular season and went on to win the state championship compiling a tournament record 211 points.
Lost to graduation last spring from that potent team were Jake Sopeland, Shane Davis, Christopher Pirch, Jeff LaMotte, Jay Wagoner and Joey Steel. Wagoner and LaMotte were state weight class champions and will be particularly difficult to replace.
The 1998-99 Horn team, coach Pirch said, is in a "rebuilding year."
But that doesn't mean the new edition is without a core of seasoned veterans.
Aaron Bratholt (103 pounds), R.C. LaHaye (112), Caleb Miller (125), Mike Armstrong (145), Jimbo Armstrong (160), Justin Davis (171), Mike Barker (215) and Blair River (heavyweight) were all starters last season and will be counted on to provide leadership and individual victories.
Jimbo Armstrong and Barker are defending state champions and strong candidates to repeat their gold-medal feats.
Because the lengthy Longhorns football season extended until last Saturday's state championship game, a bevy of Horn gridders including Jimbo Armstrong, Davis, Barker and River were not able to practice with the wrestling team until Monday afternoon.
Those athletes have spent the practice week trying to shift modes from football to wrestling.
Also on the schedule
The Horns greatest early season challenge awaits in Tucson next Saturday, but the team will have a chance to first flex its muscle today, Dec. 4 as defending champions of the Camp Verde Invitational.
The tournament wraps up the following day.
Other schedule highlights include the Rim Country Duals, Dec. 18 and 19 in Wilson dome, the annual trip to the Bolsa Grande, Ca. Invitational Tournament Jan. 8 and 9 and the prestigious Tim Van Horn Memorial, Jan. 20 in Payson.
The 1999 Central Division championships, held in Payson last season, will be conducted Feb. 6 at Santa Cruz High School in Eloy.
The state championship, Feb. 12 and 13, will be decided for the first-time ever at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.