For the second consecutive year, the most prestigious annual sporting event in Arizona high school wrestling will be held in Payson.
The 1999 Arizona Coaches' Association Red vs. Blue All-Star wrestling match is slated to begin at 6 p.m. Saturday in Wilson Dome.
The match pits 40 of the best senior wrestlers in Arizona High Schools against one another.
The all-star participants were selected in a voting of ACA members held at the end of the regular season. The athletes are chosen regardless of the school size they attend - the Class 5A conference had 18 wrestlers selected, 10 were tapped from 4A and six each from 3A and 2A. No 1A representatives were chosen.
Last June, Payson hosted the event for the first time mainly because the facilities were available with the completion of Wilson Dome.
This year, the ACA governing board opted to return the event to Payson but changed the date to the spring to avoid conflicts with the all-stars' college commitments, summer jobs and family vacations.
Prior to settling into Payson, the all-star clash was a vagabond venture held in various venues throughout the state including the campus of Arizona State University and the Jewish Community Center in Phoenix.
Whether the return to Payson as the site of the games means the event has finally found a home is unclear. Each year, the coaches must vote on a new location but as long as the governing body chooses Payson, that's okay with PHS coach Dennis Pirch.
"We enjoy having it and if they want it here, we'll try to do it," he said.
Some ACA members, however, have privately said they would like to see the event held in Tucson - the 5A hot bed of wrestling and the home of perennial powers Sunnyside and Salpointe.
No matter where the event is held, it annually showcases Arizona's finest wrestlers, many of whom are state weight-class champions bound for college careers.
Payson will be represented by two of its state champions, heavyweight Blair River and 152-pound Mike Armstrong. Had it not been for a late-season elbow injury, 215-pound Mike Barker might also have been a participant.
Because of the dislocation, suffered in the Tim Van Horn Tournament in Payson, Barker could not defend the weight class championship he earned as a junior in 1998. Although he is throwing the shot put and discus for the track team, Barker's injury prevented him from participating in the all-star clash.
Battles of the best
The all-star meet - a wrestling World Series, Super Bowl and Final Four all wrapped into one - piques the interest of fans because it allows athletes who might be unbeaten in their own conferences to finally face one another in a for-all-the-marbles show down.
Fans quickly learn first-hand how small-school, 2A and 3A athletes fare against the big-city, 5A wrestlers when they are thrown into the mix against one another.
One of the best examples of just such a mat battle will occur in the 135-pound celestial clash that features two undefeated state champions.
Tempe Marcos de Niza's Frank Saenz finished the 1999 season 40-0 and was a two-time 5A champion. His lifetime record for the Padres is 125-6 and he was an ACA All-State Wrestling First Team member.
But Saenz could be in for the battle of his career against Window Rock's Reggie James - an ACA All-State Second Team selection - who was 24-0 last season. James is a two-time state champion who finished third in the state as a sophomore, and fourth as a freshman.
At the state meet held in Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum last month, James wowed fans with his exploits.
Basketball is undoubtedly the rage sport in Window Rock, but James has drawn more than a few reservation fans to the sport of wrestling.
Saenz vs. James - a big school metropolitan star pitted against an unlikely all-star from the Navajo Nation - could be one of the most exciting matches of the all-star clash.
Another classic match will pit Apache Junction's Brandon Hays (51-0) against River Valley's Adam Brown (55-0) in the 145-pound encounter.
Hays - the son of former Arizona State University standout Buzz Hays - is a three-time state champion who wrapped up his prep career with a 141-11 record. Coaches also tapped him an All-State First Team wrestler.
The youngster is no stranger to Payson fans, having competed in numerous Rim country tournaments in past years.
Brown boasts of a long list of credentials himself including two 3A weight class championships, a third-place finish as a sophomore, and fourth as a freshman.
Plenty of good ones
Because of an overabundance of quality athletes in the 140-pound classifications, ACA coaches voted to feature two all-star matches.
In the first, Adam Durant (46-0), a state champion representing Bradshaw Mountain, will battle Heber Mogollon's Briggs Stephens - a 2A state champion for the Mustangs, who finished 41-0 last season.
In the other 140-pound match, three-time 5A champion Ron Stafford - an All-State first teamer out of Marcos de Niza - battles 3A crown-bearer Davey Perales (41-1) of Eloy Santa Cruz.
Perales will enter the match as an underdog against the more acclaimed Stafford but in Central Division battles the past two years, he's proven to be one of the most tenacious grapplers to ever don a Dust Devils singlet.
Rodriquez vs. Rodriquez
Another classic battle that will involve a Central Division athlete well-known to local fans is the 189-pound collision involving Santa Cruz's Matt Rodriquez (28-1) and Marana's Sam Rodriquez (42-2).
On his way to the 3A weight class championship last season, Matt Rodriquez edged Payson's talented Jimbo Armstrong by a decision.
As the conference's best he'll take on a wrestler who was a 4A state champion in 1999, a runner-up a year earlier and third in 1997.
Selecting the pair for the all-star clash was a no-brainer for the ACA coaches.