Very rarely has the tradition-rich Payson Longhorn wrestling team been forced to forfeit weight class matches due to a lack of varsity-caliber athletes.
But in early season competitions, that's been the situation faced by coach Dennis Pirch and his staff.
In a Dec. 12 four-way meet in Tucson -- where the Horns' 81-dual match winning streak was ended -- the team had to sometimes forfeit the 103-pound, 130-pound and heavyweight classes.
Giving up 18 points without a fight is not a storied chapter in the Horn wrestling legacy.
Since the team's return from Tucson -- and especially in recent holiday practice sessions -- the coaches have worked to build athletes to fill the vacant slots.
The first to step up to fill a void was Blair River in the heavyweight class.
After dieting to the 275-pound weight class maximum, River won the most valuable wrestler award and the heavyweight championship at the Rim Country Duals.
In recent practices, Craig Connolly and possibly Josh Paap have shown the ability to fill the vacancy at 103 pounds, Pirch said.
In the 130-pound class, Justin McCarty is starting to show well, coaches say.
With the vacant classes most likely filled, the Horns will probably have a full lineup for a five-way meet scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Jan. 6 in Payson's Wilson dome.
For Longhorn fans, that good news couldn't have come at a better time.
Entered in the upcoming match with Central foes Arizona Boys Ranch and Coolidge are a pair of top-five ranked 4A schools -- Marana Mountain View and Mingus.
It's always a challenge for Class 3A teams like Payson to beat the 4A -5A top dogs and shed the "small school" image.
In preparation for the clash, coaches might downplay a revenge factor that is smoldering between Payson and Mingus.
No matter their efforts, a face-to-face meeting against Mingus could be a clash the Horn veterans are drooling over.
That's because a bundle of fuel was recently thrown on the rapidly growing rivalry fire between the two schools. At the season-opening Camp Verde Invitational Dec. 4 and 5, the blaze turned into a fire storm when the unbeaten (7-0) Horns had to settle for runner-up honors behind the Marauders.
The slight began when the 16 tournament teams were separated into two pools, "A" and "B." Payson and Mingus -- being in different pools -- never clashed.
In Pool A, Mingus finished 7-0 and scored 609.5 points. In Pool B, Payson was perfect but scored 580.5.
Because Mingus tallied more points, the Marauders received an early Christmas gift in the form of the tournament title.
Two weeks later in the Rim Country Duals, a similar situation occurred between Payson and Apache Junction, but another gold medal solution was arrived at. Both AJ and the Horns were undefeated in pool play. Using the Camp Verde format, Payson would have been crowned king with 412 points. AJ had only 329.
But tournament officials opted to allow the teams to go head-to-head to determine the champion.
Payson won the finale 47-21. Everyone returned home satisfied that the spoils went to the victors.
Longhorn weight class champions for Payson in the duals included Justin Cline (119), R.C. LaHaye (125), Caleb Miller (135), Mike Armstrong (152), Jimbo Armstrong (189) and River.
Silver medalists include Levi Armstrong (140) and once-beaten Mike Barker (215).
Third-place finishers were McCarty (130), Mike Wright (145) and Doyle Van Horn (160).