Longhorn Wrestling:

Rebuilding or reloading?


With nine state crowns, four state runner-up finishes and 21 division titles to its credit, the Payson High School wrestling program is one of the most acclaimed in the United States.

Thumb through most any edition of Wrestling USA -- the bible of prep wrestling -- and you'll most likely uncover at least one flattering article detailing the accomplishments of the 27-year-old PHS program.

A past edition of the magazine ranked the Longhorns as the 36th most successful program in the United States. The only Arizona team ranked ahead of the Horns was Tucson Sunnyside High School where coach Bobby Deberry has won 11 state titles in the past 11 years.

With the mat men set to begin their quest for a fifth consecutive state crown Dec. 1 in Wilson Dome against the Round Valley Elks, the Horns will embark on a journey that will ultimately answer the query, "Is this a rebuilding year or is the team just reloading?"

Former National High School Coach of the Year Dennis Pirch -- founder of the wrestling program at PHS --says there's little doubt the seniors who graduated last spring will be sorely missed.

Among the crew that departed were a pair of state champions -- Mike Armstrong and Blair River. At times, both were the heart and soul of the team.

As a heavyweight, River provided many crucial points that often proved to be the team's winning margin. Also gone are state fourth-place finisher Justin Davis, and Mike Barker who was a 215-pound state title holder his junior year.

There's little doubt Barker would have defended his state crown in 1999 had not a shoulder separation sidelined him the final half of the season.

"All good kids," Pirch said.

With four of the team's top point producers departed, the Horn coaching staff of Dave LaMotte, Don Heizer, Bob Hoyt, Doug Eckhardt and Pirch will grapple to uncover a new set of wrestlers to fill the void.

Who's back

Among the candidates to carry on the legacy of Longhorn excellence are several veteran athletes who have proved their worthiness in youth, middle school and the high school endeavors.

Senior Jimbo Armstrong was a 189-pound state runner-up last season and could be one of the best wrestlers in the state regardless of school size classification. From a family of wrestlers who have for two generations shined in the sport, Armstrong is a strong candidate for a state crown.

R.C. LaHaye's only a junior but already has earned a state championship. It came at the conclusion of last season in the 125-pound competition.

Having made the varsity team as a freshman, LaHaye is a veteran who could provide much-needed leadership and guidance for the younger wrestlers.

Another seasoned athlete who is no stranger to the rigors of the sport is 135-pound state runner-up Caleb Miller. Last year, as a sophomore, he proved he has the tools, ability and determination to make a big impact on the 3A wrestling scene for years to come.

At 160 pounds, senior Doyle Van Horn, finished third at the state tournament last year and returns to the Horn fold primed and ready for a determined run at his first state title.

Others to count on

In addition to the varsity veterans, the Horn staff can call upon a bevy of other wrestlers who are on the edge of making their own bids for state honors.

Levi Armstrong, younger brother of Jimbo, was a state qualifier last year as a 140-pound freshman.

Those who witnessed his exploits as a tailback and defensive end on the Horn football team know he's a fiery youngster who will not back away from any challenge.

Also returning are seniors Mike Wright -- a 145-pound state qualifier last year -- and 130-pound Justin McCarty, who finished sixth in the state.

At 119 pounds, Justin Cline spent the last half of the 1999 season on the injured list but earlier demonstrated enough promise to give the Horns reason for hope.

Aaron Bratholt returns as a sixth-place finisher in the 112-pound competition.

Tiny Craig Connolly, a 103-pound state qualifier, could be the key to the Longhorn fortunes in the lower weight classes. Early victories by Connolly would jump start the Horn team effort in dual meet competitions.

Varsity letter winners looking to claim starting spots this season include Levi Hererra, Rocky Beery, Dominic Polandri, Jared Smith and Josh Locke.

Others battling for varsity positions include Levi Amon, Cole Newbold, Nelson Beck, Dustin Attebury, William Dudley and Robert Rowland.

The current Horn roster numbers 50 athletes including several promising freshmen.

Back home

The return to the East after a two-year (1996-1998) hiatus in the now-defunct Central division has Pirch and his coaches chompin' at the bit.

The East has built the reputation as being the most competitive in the 3A conference regardless of the sport.

Among the beasts expected to give the Longhorns fits are Show Low, Snowflake and Round Valley.

"It's going to be a great year, as far as competition goes," Pirch predicts.

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