With the regular season campaign at an end, the Longhorn wrestling team will dive head-first into preparations for a run at what could be the school's 21st divisional championship and ninth state crown.
That quest begins at the Central Division tournament Feb. 6 at Santa Cruz High School in Eloy and wraps up Feb. 12 and 13 at the state tournament in Phoenix.
The pursuit of divisional and state glory, coach Dennis Pirch says, "should be fun" despite the fact the team lost its role as the state championship favorite when two standouts on the Horn roster were sidelined by injuries.
Defending state champ Mike Barker (215 pounds) won't compete due to a dislocated elbow he suffered at the Van Horn Memorial tournament. Also, 119-pound Justin Cline is extremely doubtful due to a shoulder injury.
Without the points the two would most assuredly produce at state, the Horns' chances at a fourth consecutive Arizona 3A championship are diminished.
However, the team remains a favorite to win the Central championship.
In the absence of Cline and Barker, either Shawn Koch or David Ortland will fill in at 119 pounds. Craig McClanahan, undersized at less than 190 pounds, has taken over at 215 pounds.
The outlook for the Horn matmen is not as bright as it once was, but the line-up still possesses several grapplers who could help make the Payson star shine.
One of the most consistent wrestlers all season long has been R.C. LaHaye, who broke into the Horns' starting lineup last year as an untested freshman with only middle school experience.
This season he's been on a mat mission which peaked at the Van Horn Memorial Tournament when he won two outstanding wrestler awards.
The youngster continued his pursuit of excellence Friday in Winslow, where he helped the Horns breeze to a 59-18 win over the Bulldogs.
Pitted against a very good Winslow wrestler, LaHaye strategically carved out a 20-8 major decision using a very successful take-down/escape philosophy.
Giving up one point for an escape but picking up two for a takedown, LaHaye chalked up six takedowns in the first period on his way to a 12-5 lead.
With three more takedowns in the second stanza, he led 19-7. His final two points came on a reversal.
Pirch called LaHaye's match one of the match's highlights because of the quality of his opponent.
In addition to LaHaye, the Horns have an Armstrong family trio who could help smooth the bumpy, rough- and tumble road to state.
Freshman Levi Armstrong mans the 140-pound slot, Mike Armstrong starts in the 152-pound competition and Jimbo Armstrong holds down the 189-pound weight class.
Levi and Jimbo are brothers. Mike is their cousin.
All three are legitimate contenders for both division and state honors.
Levi tuned up for the upcoming tournaments with a 9-1 win over a Winslow foe and a 14-1 triumph over a Queen Creek opponent two days earlier in the Wilson Dome.
His contributions helped the Horns defeat Queen Creek 66-5 in the two teams' first-ever meeting.
Mike and Jimbo won matches against both Queen Creek and Winslow by falls.
Another wrestler who could contribute to the Horn cause at both division and state is heavyweight Blair River. At the weight class maximum of 275 pounds, River is a load for the opposition to deal with. Against Queen Creek, he pinned his 253-pound opponent in the blink of an eye.
Winslow forfeited the match to him.
One of River's best efforts came at the Bolsa Grande, Calif. Classic Invitational, where he won the heavyweight championship with a string of relatively easy victories.
As a senior, this will be his last opportunity to earn a state championship. Those who know him expect River will be at his wrestling best for the final two showdowns.
In the 135-pound competition, Payson boasts of another solid championship threat in sophomore Caleb Miller. The youngster capped the regular season by winning on falls against both Winslow and Queen Creek. Miller was also a weight-class champion at Bolsa Grande.
Early in the season, Doyle Van Horn alternated between the 152 and 160 pound weight classes with Mike Armstrong. It appears the coaches have settled him in at 160.
Wrestling against Queen Creek, he won an 8-6 thriller. Against Winslow, he was victorious 13-1.
In almost every tournament there are "hinge" matches where a team's welfare can be influenced by what an athlete accomplishes -- or doesn't accomplish.
Van Horn could find himself in that predicament at both divisionals and state. A good showing by him might propel the Horns over the top in both tournaments. But a poor outing might mean the team comes up points short of its goals.
In the 103-pound class, freshman Craig Connolly has battled valiantly but sometimes struggled due to his inexperience. He lost to Queen Creek 5-0 and was pinned in Winslow.
A good finish at divisionals would qualify him for state and load the Horn arsenal with a few more rounds of ammunition.
Others expected to be in the Horn lineup at the division and state tournaments include Aaron Bratholt (112), Justin McCarty (130), Mike Wright (145) and Justin Davis (171).