Wrestlers Pin Down Division Title

Looking for 4th consecutive state championship

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When trying to motivate athletes who might not fully understand the value of commitment, coaches often turn to the old adage, "Tough times don't last, tough people do."

Throughout the 1998-99 winter sports season, the proverb might best reflect the attitudes of Longhorn wrestlers who have battled their way through adversity to the Class 3A Central Division championship.

The team claimed the crown Saturday in Coolidge by rolling to 183 team points in the season-ending championship tournament. Coolidge (156) was the second-place winner and Eloy Santa Cruz (132) third.

The rocky road to the title -- the school's 21st since it was founded in 1973 -- began in November with rugged pre-season drills not designed for the faint of heart. Some couldn't meet the demands of the sport and opted to step aside.

On their way out the wrestling room door, they passed under a sign that reads, "Those who stay will be champions."

Tough times
That rocky road to Central glory took a humbling down-swing Dec. 12 in Tucson. There, the two top-ranked Class 5A teams -- Salpointe and Sunnyside -- put an end to the Longhorns' highly impressive, 60-plus, dual-meet winning streak with convincing victories.

Undaunted by the roadblocks faced in Tucson, the Horns rebounded less than a week later to win the Rim Country Duals over top-notch 4A and 5A competition.

During Christmas vacation -- while most PHS students were kickin' back and frolicking through the school break -- the wrestlers were tuning up in arduous morning practices with visions of post-season honors dancing in their head gear.

The break-neck sessions began to pay dividends in early January when the team won the Bolsa Grande Classic Invitational held near Anaheim, Calif.

Just when the path to the championships seemed to be leveling out, the Horns were dealt almost crippling blows by the loss of two standouts.

Mike Barker suffered a dislocated elbow in a gruesome fall during the Tim Van Horn Invitational Tournament. Justin Cline was sidelined with a shoulder injury and never returned to the line-up.

As a 215-pound defending state champion, Barker was a rock in the Horn lineup and almost a shoo-in for another title.

One long-time fan expressed doubts the Horns could win the Central championship, much less state, without Barker and Cline.

Cline's loss was especially critical because the weight class is one of the most competitive in the Central Division. To be successful, the Horns needed all the 119 team points they could muster.

Without the two starters in the line-up, the struggling Horns had to settle for fourth place at the Van Horn tournament held Jan. 22 and 23 in Wilson Dome.

It's a rare occurrence when vaunted Payson -- an eight-time state champion -- finishes fourth in any tournament. But in the final tournament tallies, the depleted Horns trailed Gilbert Highland, Red Mountain and Mountain Ridge.

Staring adversity square in the pupils, the Horns kept faith by working through even more demanding practice sessions hoping to somehow make up for the loss of Barker and Cline.

Horns dominate
At the Central fray, David Ortland filled in admirably for Cline but couldn't earn a top-four finish and the resulting berth in this weekend's state tournament.

To replace Barker, coaches called upon footballer-turned-wrestler Craig McClanahan. The senior responded to the challenge by advancing to the final round and narrowly missing a weight-class championship.

After taking a 5-2 lead over a much larger Fountain Hills opponent, McClanahan was on the verge of chalking up a fall. However, when the period ended, all he came away with was three points for a near fall.

In the second period, McClanahan -- who weighs only 190 pounds -- made a crucial tactical error and was pinned.

"I went for a shoot and he got me," he said.

It wasn't a gold medal, but a Central second-place finish was more than expected after Barker was felled.

The story of Payson's run for the gold continued when senior Mike Armstrong was named "Outstanding Wrestler" in the middleweight classes and sophomore R.C. LaHaye copped the title in the lightweight classes.

Armstrong won the 152-pound Central title on a 13-3 major decision over a Coolidge foe in the finale.

LaHaye wrestled his way to the 125-pound crown by pinning a Santa Cruz grappler.

In the 135-pound competition, Caleb Miller was severely tested in the gold-medal round, but eventually won the Central title with a 2-0 decision.

Doyle Van Horn jumped into the Horn victory parade by winning the 160-pound championship 11-3 over a Coolidge wrestler.

At 171 pounds, Justin Davis fell behind his well-schooled Fountain Hills opponent 2-0 early in the match, but rebounded with a near fall, escape and takedown, to win, 6-2.

In the championship round of the heavyweight division, senior Blair River -- a 6-foot, 7-inch, 275-pound strong man -- worked up only a slight sweat pinning his foe with 1:28 remaining in the first period. River says the win was great but he's now focused on winning a state championship for both himself and the team.

The runners-up
Flexing their mat muscle, the Horns won six weight-class titles and in six others finished as silver medalists.

The runner-ups included Justin McCarty (130), Levi Armstrong (140), Mike Wright (145), Jimbo Armstrong (189) and McClanahan.

In the final round, McCarty lost a 6-5 nail-biter, Levi Armstrong fell 5-1, Wright was upset 9-3 and Jimbo Armstrong dropped 16-5.

Going into the tournament, it was evident to all who follow the sport that the 189-pound class -- like 119 -- was one of the Central's most rugged.

That fact was never more crystal clear than in the semifinals, when the talented Armstrong fell behind 7-3 in the first period.

At the end of two, he trailed 9-4 but rallied in the final stanza for a 13-11 win.

In the championship round, Armstrong trailed 6-2 early and later 9-4. Through two third-period near falls, he managed to not be pinned but ended losing the 11-point decision.

In the 103-pound competition, freshman Craig Connolly earned a fourth-place finish.

On to state
The banner showing in the Central crown battles means the Horns will have plenty of depth when the team begins pursuit of a fourth consecutive state championship today (Friday) at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

The team sends representatives in every weight class except 119 pounds.

Traditionally, teams with the most qualifiers turn out to be the title contenders -- one or two first-place individuals isn't good enough for a team title.

"We have a shot at winning it (the state championship)," coach Dennis Pirch said early this week.

A shot?
Wow, that's much more than was hoped for early in the season when the Horns staggered and struggled through tough times, tough losses and morale-busting injuries.

Like coaches say, "Tough times don't last ..."

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