Less than a week after scorching a trio of Tucson Class 5A squads, the Payson Longhorn wrestlers jump from the frying pan into the fire against some of Phoenix's most heralded "big school" powers.
That test of the Horns' arsenal begins at 1:30 p.m. today (Friday) in the Payson Rodeo Committee Rim Duals Tournament which will showcase 17 teams. Some of the 5A and 4A schools participating include Phoenix North, Apache Junction, Scottsdale Chaparral, Phoenix Desert Mountain, Glendale Skyline and others.
Rim Duals action continues Saturday before wrapping up that evening with the individual championship rounds. The gold-medal finals will pit the top wrestlers in each weight class against one another.
During earlier action, the tournament format features dual-meet competition between the schools.
"Each team will have six to eight duals (matches)," PHS coach Dennis Pirch said.
The fray has attracted a bevy of powerful teams, but the Horns enter as the odds-on favorite to win the title, having easily dispatched the Tucson powers last weekend in a multi-meet at Sabino High School.
Payson's victories included wins over Canyon del Oro (59-21), Salpointe (58-15), and Sabino (53-12).
Tucson has long been a hot bed of wrestling, and for the Horns to sneak into the city, cop three wins and return to the Rim country in tact is just another feather in the cap of the four-time Class 3A defending state champions.
As the team prepares for this weekend, the coaching staff is working feverously to correct a few weak spots in the current Horn lineup. But the roster also features a solid corps of talented wrestlers -- including several freshmen -- who have the ability to take on the best that the Rim Country Duals has to offer.
Among the Horn stalwarts is 189-pound senior Jimbo Armstrong who has proven to be about as good as anyone his size in the state. In Tucson, he entered only two matches but easily won both on falls. Based on Armstrong's early season performances, the Phoenix schools on hand this weekend will be hard-pressed to find a wrestler capable of besting him.
Younger brother Levi, a sophomore, is equally at home on the mat and is the Horns' best in the 140-pound competition. His three victories last weekend -- two by falls and one a 7-5 decision -- caught the attention of the Southern Arizona mat fans.
Another pillar for the Horns is defending state champion R.C. LaHaye. In the 135-pound warfare in Tucson he emerged with three victories -- two by falls and the other on a forfeit. Senior Doyle Van Horn, a 160-pounder, returned from Tucson with two wins by decisions and one on a forfeit. Junior Caleb Miller has plenty of experience to carry him through the rigors of the Rim tournament, having been a starter last year.
During the match in Tucson, Miller grappled through two wins but dropped an 8-5 decision to a Sabino representative.
Zack Lee, an untested 112-pound freshman at the onset of the season, has emerged as one of the top mat threats in the conference. Against the southern Arizona teams, he tacked on a pair of wins by pins and another on a forfeit.
If there is a pleasant surprise among the Horns' talented crew of freshmen, it's Taylor Walden. At season's beginning, he was expected to participate in basketball -- even went to pre-season practices -- but at the last moment decided to try his hand at wrestling.
At Rim Country Middle School last year, he excelled in both sports.
In Tucson, Walden -- who tips the scales a tad over 170 pounds --got his first taste of varsity action and responded well, winning two of three matches.
Entered in the 189-pound class, he won on a fall over a Sabino foe. Participating in the 171-pound classification, he lost by a fall to a Salpointe grappler, but pinned a CDO opponent.
Frosh Matt McCarty (103) left little doubt he's ready for varsity competition, posting two victories on falls last weekend. The rookie's only loss was by a 5-4 decision.
The Longhorn "kiddie corps" line-up features another talented first-year performer in Bryce River (215) --the younger brother of former PHS heavyweight standout Blair River. In Tucson, Bryce garnered two victories by pins.
Others on the Horn roster who could represent the Longhorns this weekend include Josh Papp (103), Justin Cline (119), Jerry Baker (130), Dominic Palandri (140), Mike Wright (171), Dustin Attebury (215) and Matt Walker (heavyweight).