If any doubts lingered in prep wrestling circles about Payson High School's ability or readiness to defend its state championship, they were erased last weekend at the Camp Verde Invitational.
Competing in the tournament's 16-team field that included Class 4A and 5A "big schools," the Horns wrestled their way to the team championship, racking up a whopping 652.5 points.
Only Mingus Union, a 4A powerhouse, gave the Horns much of a tussle, finishing as runnersup with 620 points. Tiny 2A Joseph City took silver-medal honors, carding 513.5 points. Trevor Browne, a Phoenix 5A school, was fourth (501).
In addition to bringing home the tournament team title, the Horns steam-rolled their way to lopsided dual-meet victories in each of the tournaments seven rounds.
Payson opened impressively Friday, whipping Antelope 78-0 and Chandler Seton 70-6 mostly due to 10 wins by falls in each of the clashes.
In the third match, the Horns faced their severest test of the tournament, but managed to lambaste Joseph City 49-18.
Following the win over JC's boys, Payson frolicked in triumphs over River Valley (70-6), Wickenburg (78-6) and San Manuel (56-17).
The Longhorns' two-day achievements in Camp Verde would represent a season's worth of accomplishments for many prep teams. But for Payson -- the 36th winningest program in the United States -- the showing was just another day's work.
The individual champs
Fueling the team's success were stellar, gold-medal performances from seven individual weight-class champions.
They included Matt McCarty (103), Justin Cline (119), R.C. LaHaye (135), Levi Armstrong (145), Caleb Miller (152), Doyle Van Horn (160) and Jimbo Armstrong (189).
One of the most dominating tournament efforts from champions was racked up by senior Jimbo Armstrong, who finished a perfect 7-0. Five of the victories were by falls and one by an injury default.
The only match in which Armstrong went the distance occurred against River Valley. Although he dominated the proceedings, Armstrong had to settle for a 19-10 win by a decision.
Defending state champion R.C. LaHaye proved he'll once again be a force on the state scene finishing 7-0 including five falls, one forfeit and a major decision.
Cline was 8-0 with three falls. Miller chalked up four pins on his way to a 6-0 record.
A 7-0 slate with three wins by falls gave Van Horn his title. McCarty, only a freshman, finished 6-0 racking up three falls.
Sophomore Levi Armstrong found himself in the championship finals after amassing an impressive 6-0 record that included two pins and two forfeits.
In the finale, he survived a scare, winning a narrow 4-2 decision in a match marred by controversy. During the last few seconds of the final period, Armstrong attempted to push away his opponent to avoid giving up points that could have led to his downfall. However, the match official disagreed with the tactic and ticketed Armstrong with unsportsmanlike conduct which, by rules, cost the Horns a tournament team point.
The only Horn wrestler to advance to the tournament finals and not emerge victorious was freshman Zack Lee. In the finale of the 112-pound competition, Lee dropped a 19-4 technical fall to a Mingus opponent.
Third-place honors were garnered by junior heavyweight Matt Walker -- a promising newcomer to the Horn wrestling program.
Justin McCarty (140) and Jerry Baker (125) copped fifth-place laurels.
Freshman Bryce River, younger brother of former PHS state champion Blair River, finished seventh among the 215-pounders.
The Horns will return to action Dec. 11 in the Salpointe multi-meet on the campus of Sabino High School in Tucson. There, Payson will go toe-to-toe against one of the state's best 5A programs -- Salpointe -- as well as several other Southern Arizona powers.
The Horns competed, for the first time ever, in the Tucson meet last season and absorbed a thumping from state top-ranked Sunnyside and Salpointe.
However, coaches say the stiff competition in the southland went a long way in helping the young Horns prepare for the rigors of the season-ending state tournament.