Sporting 13 individual qualifiers out of a possible 14 berths, the Longhorn wrestling team begins pursuit of its fifth consecutive state championship today in Phoenix.
The only weight class in which the Horns will not have a representative is the heavyweight division. But that absence is not unusual. All season long, the PHS staff has struggled to find an able 275-pound replacement for 1999 state champion Blair River who graduated last spring.
But after trying out as many as three different athletes, the Horns weren't able to muster a qualifier at the White Mountain Regional Championship Tournament held Feb. 5 in Holbrook.
To qualify for state, a wrestler must finish among the top four in his weight division at four 3A regional tournaments held around the state.
The Horn staff tried Nelson Beck in the heavyweight slot but the inexperienced youngster, despite a solid effort, wasn't able to grapple his way to a qualifying slot
Without a heavyweight seed at state, Payson's four regional champions must shoulder more of the team's scoring burden. The gold medalists include Justin Cline (119), R.C. LaHaye (135), Doyle Van Horn (160) and Jimbo Armstrong (189).
By winning their weight divisions, the foursome helped the Longhorns run away with the regional tournament title tallying 205 points. Only runner-up Round Valley, with 148 points, gave the Horns much of a tussle.
If the regional champs can duplicate their feats on the next level, the Longhorn state cause would receive a huge boost.
The Horns will also take a strong crew of regional runners-up to state. The Horns will need yeoman-like performances from the silver medalists to be successful at state. They include Zack Lee (112), Aaron Bratholt (125), Levi Armstrong (140), Caleb Miller (145) Mike Wright (152) and Rocky Beery (171).
Some of the Longhorn runners-up could find themselves in revenge matches at state against the very same grapplers who denied them regional championships last week.
One matman in such a position is Miller.
If he locks horns with Snowflake's Mike Papa, it will be the third time the pair have met this year.
Papa owns two narrow wins, having decisioned Miller 5-0 early in the campaign and 7-6 in the regional tournament.
A third meeting between the two could turn into the mother of all mat battles.
Bratholt might also have the opportunity to seek revenge on the Snowflake wrestler who edged him 6-4 at regionals.
The most intriguing follow-up match could occur if PHS sophomore Levi Armstrong takes to the mat against the Round Valley High School athlete who took a forfeit triumph from him in the White Mountain tournament.
In that match, Round Valley's Chris Finch was leading 6-0 in the second stanza before the Longhorn coaching staff opted to end the clash.
Third- and fourth-place qualifiers find themselves in the same situation as their higher-seeded counterparts. The more points they can produce, the better the Horns' chances of winning. Bronze medalists include Justin McCarty (103) and Bryce River (130). Jerry Baker (130) advances to state as a fourth-place seed.
In Phoenix, the Horns will be confronted by several teams hoping to put an end to the Longhorn wrestling dynasty. Among the foes is the Enchantment Region champion Winslow Bulldogs. The Dogs enter the tournament having nipped the Longhorns 36-30 Jan. 5 in Wilson dome. It was Payson's only dual meet loss of the season.
Also expected to be formidable is Copper Region champion Rio Rico.
Although the Horns haven't faced Rico this year, PHS assistant coach Don Heizer anticipates a free-for-all.
"They are for real; very good we're told," he says.
State class 3A tournament preliminary rounds began at 9 a.m. today and continue until 2 p.m.
Quarterfinal and consolation rounds are scheduled to be decided between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday). The championship finals are on the agenda for 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday.
All state tournaments, 1A through 5A, will be held in Veterans Memorial Coliseum located at 1826 W. McDowell Rd. Admission for both students and adults is $5.