Even though the 2000 state wrestling championships won't be decided until Feb. 12 in Phoenix, the Longhorns can take a huge step toward a fifth consecutive title tomorrow (Saturday) in the East region tournament.
That's because the region results seed the individual wrestlers into the state finals and the more wrestlers the Horns qualify, the better their chances are to nail down the title. For individual wrestlers to earn a state berth, they must finish among the top-four of their weight division.
In past years, the Horns have won state by qualifying almost the entire team.
This year, if the Horns could qualify a maximum of 14 wrestlers, the team would be in top-notch shape for a run at the 2000 Class 3A title. Anything less than 14 qualifiers renders the quest for a crown more difficult.
In addition to earning a qualifying berth, Horn wrestlers will be out to finish as high as possible in the standings to enter state with a more advantageous seed.
The regional tournament results -- and often the luck of the draw -- will play a huge role in how well the Horns fare in Phoenix.
Payson enters the regional tournament as the regular season champion, having disposed of all six East opponents with relative ease.
The success of the team was due primarily to a rock-solid lineup that featured seasoned athletes who have been involved in the mat program since they were just elementary school students.
Calling upon superior physical conditioning, good techniques and wealth of experiences, the athletes proved tough for less dedicated opponents to deal with.
In the lower weight classes the Horns field a strong crew including Matt McCarty (103), Zack Lee (112), Justin Cline (119) and Aaron Bratholt (125).
McCarty and Lee are only freshman, but all season have proved they have the talent to compete on the varsity level.
If McCarty is to earn an East tournament championship, he's going to have to find a way to whip a Snowflake opponent who decisioned him 7-2 in an earlier dual meet.
In the middle weight classes, the Horns are well off with Jerry Baker (130), Caleb Miller (145) and Mike Wright (152).
The question mark among the group exists in the 140-pound division where sophomore Levi Armstrong started most of the season. But after injuring his arm, he was replaced by Dominic Palandri, who performed well. In his last outing, Jan. 26 against Snowflake, Palandri pinned his Lobo opponent.
The starter in the regional fray will undoubtedly depend on the health of Armstrong and which wrestler is performing best at the time.
Another question to be answered among the middle weights is how Miller will fare should he go head-to-head against his Snowflake counterpart. Although, Miller is one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the conference, he lost a 5-0 decision to Lobo Mike Papa earlier this year. To emerge an East champ, Miller will have to find a way to outduel Papa.
The Longhorn heavyweight divisions might not be as solid as the lighter groups in that no athlete has stepped forward to fill the shoes of 1999 275-pound state champion Blair River who graduated last spring.
Most recently Ingo Beck has been holding down the slot but he's light (212 pounds) and inexperienced for a position that usually features juniors and seniors.
Another possibility to wrestle in the slot is Dustin Attebury.
But, he's also inexperienced, having moved to Payson from Linesville, Pa. where there was no wrestling program.
In the other individual weights, the Horns are in commendable shape with Doyle Van Horn (160), Rocky Beery (171), Jimbo Armstrong (189) and Bryce River (215) manning the trenches.
One of the real success stories in the group is River, the younger brother of last year's heavyweight champion. As an untested freshman, Blair started the season slow but has improved enough to be a genuine threat to thump most any East foe.
His matches typically begin with him falling behind on the scoreboard and then rallying late for a victory.
PHS assistant coach Dave LaMotte has compared his antics to Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dopes," in which he lured his foes to sleep then came roaring back with a fury.
Also in the heavyweight division, Armstrong is a real title threat, but is competing in a rough-and-tumble weight division.