A Tale Of Two Grapplers

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Armstrong inspired by Olympic hero

Not many young athletes can say they took up a sport because they were encouraged to do so by a former Olympic hero.

But that's the situation with 18-year-old Payson High School senior Mike Armstrong who will participate in Saturday evening's Arizona Coaches' Association Red vs. Blue All-Star match being held in Wilson Dome.

Former college All-American, Olympic wrestler and coach Bobby Douglas, now the head coach at Iowa State University, was a frequent visitor to Armstrong's Star Valley home when Armstrong was an early elementary school student.

Douglas, then the head coach at Arizona State University, was in Payson conducting wrestling clinics and became a personal friend of Armstrong's father, Bill.

"He (Douglas) was the one that kind of wanted me to try (wrestling)," Armstrong said.

Another underlying reason for turning to wrestling, Armstrong recognizes, was the Armstrong family's strong dedication to the sport.

Brother, uncles and cousins have long played a role in helping put Longhorn wrestling on Arizona's front burner.

In the family, Armstrong said, "you are kind of expected to (wrestle)."

So, at about six or seven years old, he took up the sport that has led to a berth in the prestigious ACA all-star match. As the reigning Class 3A 152-pound state champion, Armstrong will wrestle on the Red team against a yet unnamed opponent.

Originally, it was to be Holbrook's John Whitten, but a glitch was thrown into the ACA's selection process when Gilbert Highland coaches missed the all-star voting meeting, possibly because they were told the wrong date.

"They have a legitimate gripe," PHS coach Dennis Pirch said.

At press time, Armstrong was still paired against Whitten but a last-minute change of opponents could take place, ACA officials said.

Armstrong said he doesn't much care who he wrestles, he's just happy to fulfill his dream of someday becoming an all-star.

That dream almost died several times due to illnesses.

"Every year, about the time for divisionals or state, I would get sick - a kind of throat infection. I'd wake up in the night, couldn't sleep," Armstrong said.

Last season, as a junior, he battled through the illness but had to settle for a runner-up slot in the 145-pound class partly because he was weakened by the infection.

As a sophomore, Armstrong experienced the very same illness, he said, but did manage a fourth-place finish among the 135-pounders.

When he was a freshman, Armstrong earned a berth in the state tournament and went on to compile a 2-2 record.

"That seems like a long time ago," Armstrong said.

Most athletes with a storied past such as Armstrong's would count as one of their favorite memories a personal victory or triumph. But Armstrong said he best remembers a come-from-behind win of his older brother John in the finals of the Tim Van Horn Memorial Tournament in Payson four years ago.

"John beat a Deer Valley (wrestler) who had beaten him earlier and (his victory) tied us (PHS) for first place in the tournament (with Mesa Red Mountain)," Armstrong said. "That was a great match."

With high school graduation only two months away, Armstrong is set to continue his career on the college level but is uncertain where.

"I'd like to go to either Waldorf (College in Iowa) or maybe to Phoenix College," he said.

Both schools have strong Payson ties. Former Horn stars Marco Martinez and Donavan Waterman competed at Waldorf; 1998 PHS state champ Jeff LaMotte is a member of the Phoenix College team.

Rock-solid River wraps up mat career

Blair River is well-known in the Rim country as a 6-foot, 7-inch, 275-pound senior heavyweight who won his first state weight class championship this season.

He's also remembered as the rock-solid nose guard on the Longhorns undefeated state champion football team.

But there are also those in the Rim country, who at first mention of River's name, will think of him as the wrestler who's twice had punches thrown by frustrated opponents.

"A lot of people remember that, probably because it doesn't happen too much in high school (wrestling)," River said.

The first incident occurred during his junior year at the Camp Verde Invitational against a Dysart opponent. Losing a close decision, River's foe decided to take a swipe after a cross face move.

Normally the offender would have been disqualified, but the official opted for a one-point penalty and the match continued with River eventually winning.

The other fisticuffs incident occurred later the same season against Arizona Boys Ranch - a reform school located in Queen Creek.

The ABR wrestler, who was also being manhandled, unleveled a roundhouse punch that caught River on the jaw.

This time, the referee quickly disqualified the opponent as the ABR coach led him from the match.

"I don't know what it is that caused those two (incidents); they just decided to swing," River said.

Such occurrences will be unlikely Saturday evening in Wilson Dome when River takes to the mat to compete in the Arizona Coaches' Association Red vs. Blue All-Star match.

As a member of the Red team, River will battle Morenci's Billy Curtis who was the Class 2A state champion.

River, the 3A heavyweight crown bearer, finished 29-1 last season, losing only to a Gilbert Highlands wrestler in the championship round of the Tim Van Horn Memorial Tournament.

Most Payson High School wrestling success stories began early when the youngsters were in elementary school.

River, however, didn't take up the sport seriously until his freshman year when, largely because of his size and strength, he earned the starting varsity heavyweight slot.

"That was pretty scary wrestling all those big, older guys," he said. "I was big, but they were bigger."

River said he doesn't recall how he fared as a plebe but "maybe finished .500."

The next season, with a bit more seasoning and tutoring, he improved but still wasn't a force on the state scene.

As a junior, he first realized that he was probably going to have difficulty weighing in under the weight class maximum of 275 pounds. During the football season, he tipped the scales at 300-plus pounds and had to go on a last-minute diet to get ready for the wrestling campaign.

After making weight, he went on to a 31-10 record and a fifth-place finish at state.

After helping the Horns win the state football championship last fall, River was primed and ready for his senior year but again had to drop 25-plus pounds..

In early December, he was under the 275-pound requirement and in the line-up.

"After I lost the weight I knew I could be one of the best in the state and that was pretty exciting," he said.

As the campaign wore on, River continued to excel, focusing his attention on season-ending tournaments that would hopefully lead to a state championship. He eventually won the state crown by defeating a San Manuel wrestler in the finale held in late February in Phoenix.

But it wasn't the victory River cherishes most. Rather it was a 7-4 triumph over Safford's B.J. Nelson in the state semi-finals. Nelson had thrashed River, 10-2, a year earlier and the Payson grappler had spent the time after eager to make amends.

"When he beat me, it wasn't pretty," River said. "We are good friends, but I wanted another chance."

Now that his high school athletic career is over, River has set his sights on playing football in college.

Wrestling, he said, has produced fond memories for him and he's happy he chose the sport four years ago as a wide-eyed, unknowing freshman.

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