It must be a humbling experience for Southern California's big city wrestlers to continually have sand kicked in their mugs by small-town Arizona boys.
But that's exactly what has happened to the surfer dudes eight of the 11 years the Payson Longhorns have participated in the Bolsa Grande, Calif. Classic Invitational Tournament.
In PHS's most recent venture to near the shores of the Pacific Ocean Jan. 9, the Horns ran roughshod over 12 of California's "big school" powers winning top honors with 235 points.
Runner-up Channel Island finished with 157.5 points and bronze medalist North Riverside had 132.5.
Nearby Garden Grove and Anaheim high schools finished seventh and eighth. Host Bolsa was ninth.
Rendering the Longhorns gold-medal run through the beaches even more impressive is the fact the team copped the runaway victory without one of their best wrestlers.
Mike Barker, a 215-pound defending state champion who has lost only one match this season, made the trip to California but did not participate due to a freak ear injury he incurred while frolicking with teammate Blair River.
Barker was replaced in the lineup by junior Josh Locke who was eliminated after two rounds. Barker is expected to return to the Horn line-up in about two weeks.
The Horns didn't have the victory points traditionally contributed by Barker but did have plenty of team help from gold-medal winners Aaron Bratholt (112), R.C. LaHaye (125), Caleb Miller (135), Levi Armstrong (140), Mike Armstrong (152), Justin Davis (171), Jimbo Armstrong (189) and River (Hwt.).
Miller and Mike Armstrong's triumphs came in what Longhorn coach Dennis Pirch said were the tournament's two toughest weight classes.
Miller earned a bye in the first round, won on a pin in the second round and earned a berth in the finals with a 9-1 major decision. In the championship, the Rim country sophomore wrestled his way to a 15-4 major decision over a Channel Island foe.
Armstrong also took a first-round bye and then won an 11-3 major decision. He won his two final matches on pins, the final one against Channel Island.
Bratholt -- who has struggled in some outings this year -- tacked four consecutive pins onto his gold-medal parade. The showing was the best single day tournament effort of his career.
LaHaye opened with a bye, then recorded two pins. In the championship finale he dominated winning a 20-5 major decision over a Torrance High School grappler.
Freshman Levi Armstrong won his title by pinning a Channel Island representative with 2:21 remaining. The rookie advanced to the final round on a win by a fall and a 11-3 major decision.
The championship match was much tougher for Davis than it was for any of his Rim country teammates. After a see-saw, nip-and-tuck battle, Davis won the gold with a narrow 9-7 decision over a MUSCLEMAN wrestler.
In earlier tournament rounds, Davis chalked up two relatively easy pins.
After picking up two byes, Jimbo Armstrong only had to wrestle once to reach the finals. He won that match by a fall then took the weight-class crown on another pin. The second one came with 5:34 remaining.
His foe from North Riverside High School, he said, was pretty strong. "He was the starting tailback on their football team," Armstrong said.
In the heavyweight championship, River had little trouble disposing of another North Riverside athlete pinning him with 1:49 to go. The California athlete had dominated the weight class in the first two rounds recording two pins.
Bronze-medal honors in the tournament were garnered by 130-pound Justin McCarty and 160-pound Doyle Van Horn.
McCarty was beaten in the semifinals by the eventual weight-class champion, but battled back through the consolation bracket to win two matches.
After receiving a first-round bye, Van Horn won a 12-6 decision but then lost a heart-breaker 2-1 in the semifinals.
In the consolation bracket, he record a pin and 7-3 victory to earn third.
Others who made the trip but did not place were Craig Connolly (103), Shaun Hounshell (119) and Mike Wright (145).
With the traditional trek to California at an end and the team back in the friendly confines of northern Gila County, the Horn team members and coaches will now focus their energies on the pursuit of a Central Division and fourth consecutive Class 3A state championship.
The road to the Arizona Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix where the state championships will be held Feb. 12 and 13 contains a 7 p.m. Jan. 20 stop in Wilson dome.
The foe was originally to be Arizona Boys Ranch and that is the way it is printed on some PHS schedules.
However, because the school's enrollment suffered a rapid decline due to legal troubles, the Spartans canceled their wrestling program in the late fall. To fill the void in the schedule, Pirch and Athletic Director Barry Smith were able to persuade Queen Creek High School officials to visit Payson for a match.
In addition to the date with Queen Creek, the Horns will host the Tim Van Horn Invitational Jan.. 22 and 23 and will travel to Winslow Jan. 29 for a dual meet.
Pirch describes the upcoming Invitational as the premier wrestling event in the Longhorns' schedule.
The Central Division championships Feb. 6 in Eloy will serve as a qualifying meet for the state finals.