As four-time defending state champions, the Payson Longhorn wrestling team drops a dual meet about as often as the Arizona Cardinals score a first quarter touchdown.
But the unthinkable happened Jan. 5 in Wilson dome when the Winslow Bulldogs nipped the Horns 36-30 thanks to a bizarre set of circumstances that left tongues a waggin' and fans scratching their noggins in disbelief.
A hint of the misfortune that was to fall upon the mighty Longhorns reared its ugly head just prior to the opening of the 103-pound match when coaches decided to hold starter Matt McCarty out of action. He gave way to reserve Josh Paap.
A 17-2 technical fall loss by Paap put the Horns in a 5-0 hole that grew to 8-0 when Zack Lee lost a hard-fought 8-6 decision in the 112-pound competition.
An early deficit is nothing the Longhorns can't overcome especially since the team's middle weights are a talented crew equal to the best Arizona has to offer.
Just as they have done in season's past, the Horns rallied with wins from Justin Cline (119), Aaron Bratholt (125), R. C. LaHaye (135), Levi Armstrong (140), Caleb Miller (145), Mike Wright (152) and Doyle Van Horn (160) to carve out a 30-20 team lead.
With only three matches remaining, all the Longhorns needed to insure a victory was for 189-pound Jimbo Armstrong to win. Then, Payson would have enough team points on the scoreboard to render the outcome of the 215 and heavyweight contests moot points.
Since the onset of the season Dec. 1 in Round Valley, building a good sized lead before the two final matches are contested has been a rallying cry for the PHS team.
The Horns simply don't have the athletes in those two weight classes that they had last year when 215-pound Mike Barker and heavyweight Blair River were dominating the state wrestling scene.
Early in the crucial 189-pound clash, a Payson triumph seemed a certainty as Armstrong carved out a 13-6 lead and pretty well had things going his way.
But in one rough and tumble sequence, Armstrong slammed his Bulldog opponent to the mat where he lay motionless for several minutes. Later he had to be carted away by medical personnel.
The match official ruled Armstrong's slam was illegal. Since his opponent couldn't continue, the Payson wrestler was disqualified and Winslow awarded six team points.
Like a dagger in the heart, the DQ squeezed any breath of life the Horns harbored for holding onto a victory.
With the score now 30-26, Payson's victory chances were slim in the 215-pound match where untested freshman Bryce River was overmatched against a seasoned Winslow opponent.
The rookie battled valiantly refusing to be pinned but eventually lost a 14-2 decision that deadknotted the team score 30-30. The demise of the Horns turned complete when heavyweight Dustin Attebury was pinned early in the first period.
A sock-in-the-jaw loss like the Longhorns absorbed might have rattled some coaches, but to veteran Dennis Pirch -- a former National Coach of the Year --it was no more than a day in the life of high school athletics.
The defeat was a gut-wrencher for the team members but Pirch predicts it might fare the Horns well in the future. "It is a great learning tool for all matches to come," he said.
Pirch also said he, his assistants and the team wanted to thank the many who showed up in Wilson dome to cheer the team's efforts.
The loss to the Bulldogs will have no effect on the Horns' pursuit of their 22nd divisional title in the past 25 years. Winslow, a former member of the East where Payson resides, was moved to the North in a 3A conference realignment last spring.
The Horns (3-0 in the division) return to East action Jan. 12 in Lakeside against the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets. Payson also travels to Holbrook Jan. 15 for another divisional clash.