No Christmas Break For Dedicated Wrestlers


There are no well-kept secrets behind the overwhelming success of Payson Longhorn wrestling program that has won nine state championships and is ranked among the top 40 winningest in the United States.

The key to excellence is easily defined as "dedication," coaches say.

Only days after pushing their record to 19-0 by winning the Rim Country Duals Tournament championship Dec. 18, the team returned to Wilson dome early this week to begin preparations for a dual meet Jan. 15 against Winslow.

All the time the PHS wrestlers were toiling away their morning hours in a hot, humid, sweat-soaked room, friends and other teenagers were wallowing through the Christmas break enjoying the school's two-week long respite from academics.

"It sure would have been easy to sleep in this morning," a veteran wrestler was overheard saying as he laced up his shoes and readied himself for Tuesday's session.

Among those receiving a lightening quick indoctrination into the sacrifices of being a member of the PHS team is freshman Taylor Walden. Only minutes before Tuesday's practice, Walden -- knowing he didn't want to be late -- hustled from the family car and into the dome practice room for what would be a rugged two-hour session.

Walden says the arduous requirements of the program are tough on a freshman but are paying dividends now that he has earned a spot on the varsity team.

As the current starter in the 171-pound slot, Walden surprised everyone --including himself -- by winning his weight class championship at the RC Dual Tournament with a 6-0 record.

"I had no idea I'd be doing this good," he said.

Duals gold medalists

As the Rim Country Duals champions, the Longhorns ran roughshod over 16 schools including several Class 4A and 5A teams representing metropolitan Phoenix.

After winning the Gold division pool Friday with a 3-0 record, the Horns were seeded into a "King of The Hill" single elimination tournament contested Saturday.

In the championship round, Payson faced the exact same team they had beaten 53-20 in the championship of the pool finals one day earlier -- Phoenix North.

The RCD championship showdown turned into an instant replay of the pool title game when the Longhorns ran away with a 60-10 triumph.

The all-tournament team

Traditionally in the Rim Country Duals, top individual wrestlers were seeded into a mini-tournament which eventually determined the weight class champions.

This year, however, that process was changed. Instead, an all-tournament team was selected based on a wrestler's overall record during the two days of dual meets.

PHS coach Dennis Pirch said the format shift was made to speed up the proceedings and also to cut down on the workload of some visiting athletes whose coaches felt six matches in two days was sufficient.

Payson wrestlers who finished 6-0 and were named to the all-tournament team included Aaron Bratholt (125), R.C. LaHaye (135), Levi Armstrong (140), Caleb Miller (145), Doyle Van Horn (160), Walden (171) and Jimbo Armstrong (189).

For his efforts, LaHaye -- a defending state champion -- was named one of two "outstanding wrestlers" in the tournament. The other was Apache Junction's Kevin Combs.

Tournament action

In Gold pool action Friday, the Horns opened with a 71-9 pounding of Camp Verde. During the second round, Payson wrangled San Pasquel, Calif. 63-18 to earn a berth in the pool championship against North.

After whipping the Mustangs by 33, the Longhorns received the right to advance to the King of the Hill match along with Desert Mountain, Glendale Skyline, Apache Junction, North, Palo Verde Christian, Chinle and San Pasquel.

In the first round, Payson dispatched Chinle 70-10 to set up a 72-4 thumping of Palo Verde Christian.

The win pushed the Horns into the finale where Payson again frustrated North.

In the corralling of the Mustangs, the Longhorns -- as they have done all season -- relied on wins by falls which contributed a healthy six points to the team cause.

Victorious with pins were Josh Paap (103), LaHaye (135), Miller (145), Van Horn (160), Walden (171), Jimbo Armstrong (189) and freshman Bryce River (215).

Joey Cline (119), Aaron Bratholt (125), Jerry Baker (130) Levi Armstrong (140) and Mike Wright (152) wrestled their way to victories by decisions.

Up next

On their way to an undefeated season and two tournament championships, the Longhorns have not been severely tested. Most opponents -- including highly regarded 5A power Tucson Salpointe --have suffered through 30- and 40-point losses.

But the relative ease of wins could all come to an end in the Jan. 5 clash in Wilson dome against Winslow.

Based on early season performances, the Winslow Bulldogs could be one of the few teams in the 3A conference with the talent to compete against the Longhorns.

One week ago in the Holbrook Invitational Tournament, the Bulldogs easily won the crown besting the runner-up by more than 40 points.

Pirch predicts Winslow will be a rugged opponent for his talented crew.

Once a wrestling powerhouse in the state, the Dogs fell upon hard times, but appear to have rejuvenated their mat program under coach Tom Breeze.

As hotly contested as the Payson vs. Winslow clash might be, it will not affect either team's divisional finish or seed to state.

In an Arizona Interscholastic Association realignment last spring, Winslow -- a long-time member of the East -- was shifted to the North.

Bolsa Grande tourney

In addition to the upcoming match against Winslow, the Horns have on their agenda the annual trip to Southern California (Jan. 7 and 8) where the team will compete in the Bolsa Grande Invitational Tournament.

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