With the onset of the season just two weeks away, the 2000-2001 edition of the Longhorn wrestling team finds itself preparing for the most competitive schedule in the 28-year history of the sport at PHS.
Last spring, head coach Dennis Pirch and his staff went looking for topnotch talent to face the Horns and came up with a pair of squads Tucson Sunnyside and Aztec, N.M. that are nationally ranked.
Payson locks horns with Sunnyside a national top-20 ranked 5A state power Dec. 9 in Tucson. Also in the three-way meet is another "big school" Tucson Canyon del Oro.
The Horns face Aztec in the final dual meet of the season, Jan. 27 in Wilson Dome. The much-heralded New Mexico team enters the fray riding the crest of 10 consecutive state championships and a top-25 national power ranking.
Also on the Horn agenda are several 5A metropolitan Phoenix schools including state top-ranked Gilbert Highland entered in at the Tim Van Horn Memorial Tournament to be contested Jan. 19 and 20 in Wilson Dome.
Although, Aztec, Sunnyside, Highland and the 5A Valley schools will provide the Horns plenty of rugged competition, it's the regular season East matches that will earn PHS a berth into the state tournament..
An East regional team expected to provide Payson the greatest challenge, Round Valley, will play host to the Horns Nov. 29 in the season opener.
The Elks sport a sizable contingent of talented athletes as evidenced by their recently-ended two-game run into the state football championships.
Also, the Elks can call upon a veteran coach, Shelby Ray, to help prepare them for Payson and other East foes.
Although Winslow is not a member of the East, the Horns might be looking forward to a Jan. 10 clash against the homestanding Bulldogs.
Last season, while Payson was compiling a 22-1 record, Winslow was the only team to defeat the Horns. That loss, by a 35-30 measure, was incurred Jan. 5 in Wilson Dome.
The Horns rebounded more than a month later to whip Winslow 194.5-179 in the state tournament.
The upcoming showdown in Winslow could turn into another mat war between the 3A Conferences' top two teams.
Although the Horns face a myriad of solid mat powers, the opponents might have to take a back seat to the tradition-rich Longhorns when it comes to honors and accolades.
As the wrestling capital of small-town America, Payson fields a team that, last winter, USA Wrestling magazine ranked 25th best in the United States.
Since Pirch founded the team in 1973, the Longhorns have grappled their way to 10 state championships, four state runner-up titles and 22 regional crowns.
The team is currently on an impressive winning streak, having captured five consecutive state crowns.
Individually, the Longhorns have produced five high school All-Americans, two of whom have gone on to collegiate All-American honors, Jim Gressley and Jeff LaMotte
Another Payson product, Christopher Pirch the coach's son is currently attending Cornell University on a wrestling scholarship.
Also an unwavering strength of the Horn mat program is the talented crew of coaches.
One look at the staff sends opponents into frenzies wondering how so many talented coaches ended up at one small school.
Dave LaMotte, Don Heizer, Bob Hoyt and Doug Echardt all have the experience and moxie to be successful head coaches at most any high school in Arizona.
In fact, they are so respected that coach Pirch refuses to call them assistants preferring instead to label them "co-coaches."
Senior R.C. LaHaye, a highly talented and hard working two-time defending state champion (135 pounds), will lead the Horn contingent into the upcoming campaign. If LaHaye is able to wield his way to a third 3A title, he will join Tyler Robertson (1993-1995) as the only PHS wrestler to stake claim to three Arizona weight-class titles.
Joining LaHaye as a team leader and odds-on state title threat is fellow-senior Caleb Miller (145). As a two-time state runner-up, Miller will be looking to cap his prep career with a 3A crown.
Like LaHaye and Miller, Levi Armstrong spent his formative years on the wrestling mat mastering the nuances of the sport. Last year, Armstrong's dedication paid off with a state-runner-up title in the 140-pound class. Bigger and stronger, he'll probably have to move up a weight division, but again should be a state title contender.
Other veterans on the roster are Rocky Beery, Zack Lee and Aaron Bratholt.
Last winter at the state championships, the 171-pound Beery was third, Lee (112) fourth and Bratholt (125) sixth.
Other lettermen returning to the Horn fold include Ingo Beck, Matt McCarty, Bryce River and Craig Connolly.
Beck could be a key to Horn success in that the coaches are scouring the campus to find a heavyweight to fill a void in that division.
Last season in the East regional championships, the Longhorns qualified wrestlers for state in every weight class except heavyweight. The division was the lone weakness in the PHS mat arsenal. If Beck can round into form, the Horns will have solved their heavyweight dilemma.
Also waiting in the wings as a possible heavyweight is newcomer George Coleman. At just over 200 pounds, the sophomore transfer might be a little undersized but coaches say he's talented enough to give a good accounting of himself. Coleman brings to Payson the experience of having been a freshman letter-winner at his former Washington-state high school.
Other returning squad winners from last year's team include Dave Obregon, Luke Schmidt, Darryl LeSueur, Cole Newbold, Dale Speer, Ryan Carey, John Cronin, Levi Amon, Brett Williams, Robert Rowland, Winters Burdette, Clint Cork and Colin Bowling.
Joining the veterans is a handful of untested, but talented, freshman, who could find themselves holding down varsity starting positions.
"They are just now learning they can wrestle on the same mat with the older (athletes)," Pirch said. "They could do good things."