Sports history books might soon refer to the 1990s as the Payson High School wrestling program's decade of domination.
The Horns' mat mastery of the past 10 years -- which includes six state championships, one state runner-up and nine division titles -- climaxed late Saturday evening in Phoenix's Veterans Memorial Coliseum. There, the Longhorns captured their fourth consecutive Class 3A Arizona crown, accumulating 181.5 points.
Safford finished as runner-up with 129.5 points; unheralded Window Rock surprised many by finishing third with a tally of 113.5.
Entering the state meet, the Horns were considered an underdog due to the loss of two early season starters -- 119-pound Justin Cline and 215-pound Mike Barker. Both went down with injuries in January and were lost for the remainder of the campaign. Barker was a defending state champion and a huge favorite to retain the title.
In spite of their loss, coach Dennis Pirch refused to give in, saying, "We're certainly not the favorites now but we have a shot (at the state championship). It should be fun."
In both weight classes at state, the Longhorns were shut out, but yeoman-like performances by other Horn grapplers were enough to compensate for Cline and Barker's absence.
Individual state champions from Payson included Blair River (hwt), Mike Armstrong (152) and R.C. LaHaye (125).
Jimbo Armstrong wrestled his way to runner-up honors in the 189-pound competition as did Caleb Miller among the 135-pounders.
Other state placers included Doyle Van Horn (third, 160 pounds); Justin Davis (fourth, 171); Justin McCarty (sixth, 130); and Aaron Bratholt (sixth, 112).
Goin' for the glory
If there is a state Cinderella story to tell, it has to be spun on the huge shoulders of heavyweight Blair River who, as a senior, was facing his last chance to win a state championship.
Since the onset of the season, River has maintained that his sole purpose in competing was to first help his team win the crown and then to earn a state gold medal of his own.
After finishing the football season at well over 300 pounds, the 6-foot, 7-inch youngster struggled to reach the 275-pound maximum of his weight class.
Although he missed several early season meets because he couldn't drop to the weight requirement, River finally weighed-in less than 275 at a late December meet.
"Dieting and a lot of running did it," he said at the time.
He admitted the demands of losing that much weight were frustrating, but were in his own best interests.
As the season continued to roll, River gained confidence by dominating the competition through pin after pin.
Although he was not the most heralded wrestler in his weight class, River often said he was "pumped" about making a run at the state championship that had eluded him in earlier seasons.
Because he won the Central heavyweight championship Feb. 6 in Coolidge, River entered the state tournament as the division's top seed.
Paired against Alchesay's Matt Kane in the opening round, River won with another of his patented pancake pins.
In the second round, he flattened Tuba City's Solomon Eltsostie to earn a berth in the semi-finals against Safford's highly-regarded B. J. Nelson.
The Safford grappler's reputation was well-known to River. At the Tim Van Horn Invitational in mid-January, the Payson wrestler predicted his path to the state championship would go through the rugged Nelson.
"He's very good, tough to beat," River said at the time.
And right he was -- the Rim country mat man found himself in the war of his career against Nelson, who had advanced in the tournament with two easy pins.
After the first period ended in a 2-2 tie, River chalked up an escape and takedown to take a 5-3 lead going into the crucial final minutes.
Calling upon every ounce of strength and determination remaining, the Horn wrestler rallied gallantly with a takedown and a near fall for a 9-4 triumph. The win left little doubt who was the premier big man between the two.
In the finals, River's dream turned almost magically to reality in a rough and tumble 7-3 decision over San Manuel's James Arbizo.
For River, the wins over Nelson and Arbizo were a vindication of sorts -- he lost to both wrestlers last season.
Even PHS coach Dennis Pirch was awed by River's accomplishments. "He had the weekend of his life."
Another senior champ
Like River, Mike Armstrong had always come up short of earning a state weight class championship.
Last year as a junior, he finished fourth in the state tournament.
As the Central Division champion, Armstrong earned an advantageous seed to state and opened with a pin of Ganado's Torrence Nez. In the second round, Armstrong decisioned Holbrook's John Whitten 5-0.
San Manuel's Logan Kelly, who was pinned, felt the sting of Armstrong's determination in the semi-finals.
Battling toe-to-toe against Coolidge's Anthony Felix in the championship round, Armstrong found himself trailing early, 2-1.
Only minutes later, however, Armstrong turned a takedown and a near fall into a 5-3 lead.
With the state championship hanging in the balance, Armstrong increased his lead to 6-3 before the frustrations of fierce competition took its toll on the Coolidge grappler.
The mat official warned Felix first about an illegal hold, unnecessary roughness and then concerning verbal exchanges aimed at Armstrong. Talking trash, it's called.
Finally, with only minutes remaining, the official ended the match, disqualifying the Coolidge representative.
Felix's loss of composure was a tough lesson to be learned. AIA rules stipulate his medal, which at the least would have been a silver, be revoked and also all team points he earned be taken away.
Coolidge finished 13th with 56 points. Had the Bears had the 20-plus points accumulated by Felix, the team would have been ninth.
Prior to Felix's disqualification, at the end of the semi-finals, the Bears were in fourth place overall.
The young 'un
He's only a 16-year-old sophomore, but the effort turned in by LaHaye at the state tournament was more representative of a seasoned senior scratching and clawing for a few final triumphs.
The Central 125-pound champion opened the tournament in impressive fashion with identical 20-5 wins over Rio Rico's Tom Bustamante and then Chris Brunelle of River Valley.
Holbrook's Jesus Barela was next to fall victim to LaHaye's tenacity, 12-4.
LaHaye's state championship run ended with a 14-4 technical fall victory over Brian Lee of Window Rock.
With two years of eligibility remaining at PHS, LaHaye will be a big part of the foundation Horn coaches will build future state title aspirations upon.
Also a sophomore, Caleb Miller began the state tournament with three victories -- first on a pin, then a 15-5 decision and finally a technical fall.
In the finals against Window Rock's Reggie James, Miller was decisioned 7-1. James was later named the state's outstanding wrestler in the lightweight classes.
Jimbo Armstrong, the 171-pound 1998 state champion, climbed into the 189-pound title bout with an opening-round pin, a 9-5 decision and an ever-so-sweet 7-3 triumph over Snowflake rival Jordan Green.
In the finale, Armstrong came up short, 13-6, against Santa Cruz's Matt Rodriquez.