Relishing the role of the underdogs, the Longhorn wrestling team edged tournament favorite Winslow 194.5 to 179 Saturday evening to win the 2000 Class 3A state championship.
The Longhorn triumph at Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum represented the fifth consecutive state crown for Payson High and the 10th overall. The win also served as a revenge of sorts for a 36-30 dual meet loss to Winslow Jan. 5 in Wilson dome.
Entering the state tournament as the underdog was a rare occurrence for the Longhorns who have dominated the state and national wrestling scene for the past two decades.
But following the regular season loss to Winslow, the Horns were relegated to a state also-ran.
"The kids knew they weren't the favorites when the tournament began," PHS assistant coach Don Heizer said.
With 14 qualifiers out of a possible 14 berths, Enchantment Region champion Winslow appeared to almost be a shoo-in for the title.
But with 13 qualifiers, tradition-rich Payson was in solid shape to make a run at the crown.
Also, the loss to Winslow might have been a blessing in disguise for the Longhorns. With the monkey of "favorite" off their back, the team entered the state fray with everything to gain and little to lose.
Previous Payson teams have not had that luxury. Since 1996, almost every Horn team was the heavy favorite to run away with the title.
Down to the wire battle
After almost two full days of competition, which began with preliminary rounds Friday morning, the Longhorns entered finals rounds with a 9 1/2-point team lead over Winslow.
Most of those Longhorn points were the results of victories by pins, Heizer said. "We had five falls with one second on the clock."
The slim Longhorn lead however was precarious at best since Winslow was in a dead heat with Payson in the number of entries -- nine -- in the consolation and championship finals.
Of Payson's five competitors in the gold-medal round, three -- R.C. LaHaye (135), Doyle Van Horn (160) and Jimbo Armstrong (189) emerged as state champions.
Caleb Miller (145) and Levi Armstrong (140) finished as state runnerups.
Winslow won two of its five title matches with Scott Larsen (171) and Mike Shumway (275) copping crowns
The scoring differential posted in the finals along with the 9 1/2-point cushion earned earlier propelled the Horns to the upset victory.
In addition to the champions and silver medalist, the Horns picked up much-needed scoring from third-place finishers Justin Cline (119) and Rocky Beery (171).
Cline's accomplishments were especially significant because he was entered in a rough and tumble weight class.
"119 was just brutal, but Justin wrestled well," Heizer said.
Freshman Zack Lee contributed his fair share to the Horn cause with a fourth-place finish in the 112-pound division.
Payson's final medalist, Mike Wright, was sixth among the 112-pounders.
The state championship tournament victory caps of one of the most successful seasons in the storied history of Payson High School wrestling.
In addition to the 3A crown, the Horns won the White Mountain Region regular season title and White Mountain Tournament championship.
During the regular season, the Horns emerged as champions of the Camp Verde Invitational, Rim Country Duals and an invitational meet at Estancia, Calif.
About the only time the team was put on the back burner was in the loss to Winslow and a second-place finish at the Tim Van Horn Invitational.
With the season at an end, most of the wrestlers will take a brief respite from the rigors of training before turning their attention to the spring and summer USA freestyle and Greco-Roman competition.
The Horn coaching staff of Dennis Pirch, Dave LaMotte, Doug Eckhardt, Bob Hoyt and Heizer have long used the USA program as a building block for the high school program.
Many of the youngsters also will be participating in summer camps as they continue to build their skills for the Horns' run for a sixth consecutive state title.