Because the nucleus of the 1998 state championship Longhorn wrestling team graduated last spring, the squad was expected to flounder through a rebuilding year.
But don't tell coach Dennis Pirch and his staff that -- they consider 1999 simply a reloading year.
"We are in the heat of the season with the intention of a division and state title," he said. "The coaching staff believes (the championships) are possible with consistent hard work from the entire team."
Should the Horns win the Class 3A crown, it would be the team's fourth consecutive state championship.
The possibility of such an occurrence seemed remote in early December when the Horns were forfeiting three weight classes allowing opponents an 18-point advantage.
State champion talk fell to a low ebb when the Longhorns saw their 83-match winning streak come to a abrupt halt Dec. 12 in Tucson against Sunnyside and Salpointe.
"They spanked us, team-score wise," Pirch said.
But the coach wasn't crying over spilt Gatorade. "It was definitely worth the trip to have top-notch competition," he said, "which can only make our team better."
Evidence the Longhorns have evolved into a possible division and state contender surfaced Jan. 6 in the three-way meet held in Wilson dome.
In the trio of dual battles, the Horns were able to fill all the previously vacant weight classes except the 103-pound class against Coolidge and Mingus.
Nonetheless, the Horns dominated Coolidge 60-15, blasted Marana Mountain View 59-12 and left little doubt in Marauders' fans minds who is top dog by thumping Mingus 46-21.
The win over Mingus was delightfully sweet in light of tournament results from the season-opening Camp Verde Invitational Dec. 4 and 5.
In a dual-meet format, Mingus and Payson both finished unbeaten in separate tournament pools. The two teams never met head-to-head, but Mingus was awarded the championship because the Marauders scored more team points during the fray.
It was a very cautious method of awarding the tournament crown.
Nary a word of complaint was uttered by the team members or coaches but last week's 25-point win over the Marauders leaves little doubt as to which school sports the superior wrestling squad.
Also, Payson's dual meet win can only add more spirit to a rivalry that has been building since the Marauders upgraded their program into becoming one of the best in the Class 4A conference.
In the win, Mingus jumped out 12-0 after the Horns forfeited the opening match and Aaron Bratholt was pinned in the 112-pound clash.
Like an old west cavalry charge, Payson came roaring back in the 119-pound clash when Shaun Hounshell, behind 8-0 early in the contest, won by default.
The outcome of the dual remained in doubt until the conclusion of the 160-pound clash in which Doyle Van Horn won 5-1 to give Payson a 25-21 lead.
But then, wins on fall by Justin Davis (171), Jimbo Armstrong (189) and Mike Barker (215) upped the Horns lead to 43-21.
Heavyweight Blair River's 11-7 triumph swirled more icing onto the Longhorns victory cake.
The lopsided win over Coolidge presented even more evidence the Horns are on the comeback road to a banner season. In Eloy Dec. 15, the Horns struggled against the Bears salvaging a 45-28 victory thanks to heroics in the upper weight classes.
The most recent win came much easier for the improving Horns who won six matches by falls.
Pinning their opponents were Vince Palandri (125), Caleb Miller (135), Van Horn (160), Davis (171), Barker (215) and River (hwt.).
In the final five matches, the Horns scored the maximum 30 points.
The bigger they are ...
In whipping Marana Mountain View -- a highly regarded 4A school -- the Longhorns left little doubt that in the sport of wrestling, the 3A conference might be tougher than its big brother.
Marana jumped out 6-0, but the Horns built a lead of 31-12 on victories by Bratholt (112), Justin Cline (119), R.C. LaHaye (125), Caleb Miller (135), Levi Armstrong (140) and a forfeit to Justin McCarty (130).
After Mikel Garrett lost the 145-pound match by a pin, the Horns strung together six consecutive triumphs to coast to the victory. In the win skein, Davis, Armstrong and Barker won by falls.
River battled through one of his toughest matches of the season winning an 8-7 decision after falling behind 5-1 in the first period.
A reversal, escape and takedown in the final minutes preserved River's unbeaten status.
The Horns return to action at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13 at Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek.
On the agenda are Central foes Fountain Hills and Cactus Shadows. Also participating will be the Holbrook Roadrunners who were a big rival of the Longhorns when both teams were members of the 3A East Division from 1991-1997.