Pirch Reign Ends At Payson High

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His program reached the epitome of success 10 state championships, 23 regional titles, more than 100 tournament championships and a top-20 national ranking.

But for Dennis Pirch, the 28 years he spent at the helm of the Longhorn wrestling program wasn't just about winning.

The former PHS coach who retired from coaching late Monday afternoon maintained a long-standing philosophy that wrestling, in its purest form, was a venue where young people had the opportunity to develop the values so important in today's society. Those values he often said were integrity, self-reliance, responsibility and a strong work ethic.

In the 1998-99 Payson Wrestling handbook, Pirch wrote that participation in Longhorn wrestling would "enable each person to not only be a winner and a champion on the mat, but also, after he leaves, to be a champion throughout his life."

And, the former coach never wavered in his belief that youngsters who committed themselves to the program would eventually succeed.

"Those who stay will be champions," reads a plaque that has hung in the PHS wrestling room for decades.

Among the many former wrestlers who thrived in the program are R.C. LaHaye and Mike Anderson.

LaHaye, a senior at PHS and one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the state, said that under Pirch, he learned as much about life as wrestling.

"Some of the most important things he taught us were about being good citizens and good students. It wasn't always about sports, that's why I respect him so much," LaHaye said

Anderson, a former state champion-turned-dentist, said that as he looks back on his career 1984 to 1988 he now realizes Pirch "was one of those coaches whose greatest concern was to create character in young men."

Also, Pirch's program, Anderson continued, "helped young men achieve more than they ever thought possible."

In the beginning

Payson might not have blossomed into America's small-town wrestling capital had Pirch and his wife, Kathy, went with their plan to move to Gilbert.

The former coach remembers strolling into Payson's post office in the spring of 1973, struggling with the decision of whether to return a contract offer he received from Gilbert High School.

"The contract was signed and in my hand; I was going (to Gilbert High) to coach with Dan Dunn probably football and wrestling," he said.

At the last minute, however, Pirch opted to nix the Gilbert proposal and remain in the Rim country, where the couple had lived the previous two years.

A huge influence in their decision to stay Pirch remembers was that just days earlier, Payson High athletic director Tom Meck had approached him and asked about forming a wrestling program at the school.

"I think Tom knew that I had interest in wrestling and he wanted to get the sport started here," Pirch said.

Pirch said his fondness of the sport began in his childhood home in Iowa.

"I think I liked wrestling because I wasn't very good in basketball ... I was cut from the team," he said.

After his family left Iowa to move to Mesa, he continued to participate in the sport at Westwood High School and later at Mesa College and Northern Arizona University.

With his wrestling contract from Meck in hand, the new Longhorn coach laid the groundwork for Payson High's inaugural wrestling program. In the summer and fall of 1973, he scoured the tiny town searching for teenagers interested in participating.

At first, he didn't find many takers only about 12 students showed up for tryouts and some of those didn't make it through the inaugural season.

Realizing the future of the sport hinged on the interest generated among the younger athletes, Pirch assisted by his wife and Chuck Crabdree went about founding a youth wrestling program for elementary and junior high school students.

Today, that youth program is considered one of the best in the state and is widely acknowledged as the foundation of the high school team's 28 years of overwhelming success.

But the team's unbridled achievements through the years didn't make the sport any more attractive to fledgling athletes.

During the past few seasons while Payson High was stringing together five consecutive regional and state championships Pirch and his staff continued to sell the values of the sport to reluctant freshmen and transfers.

"Encouraging young people to participate was ongoing," Pirch said. "Being successful didn't change the program as much as you might think."

After a so-so first year, the Longhorn wrestling team returned to the mat in the season of 1974-75 to win what would be the first of a long line of regional crowns. Competing in the Class B Central region against the likes of Hayden, Apache Junction and Phoenix Christian, the Horns won the title with a largely untested group of mat rookies.

Today, when PHS athletes take to the mat, they are considered among the most experienced, well conditioned and fundamentally sound wrestlers in Arizona.

Building a legacy

Since the program's humble origins that had Pirch and assistant Bruce Sitko handling most of the coaching chores, Payson has managed to lure a topnotch staff that is the envy of the state.

Don Heizer and Dave LaMotte once "coaches of the year" at their former schools came to Payson High with seasons of head coaching experience. Doug Eckhardt, a former Longhorn star who learned the nuances of the sport under Pirch, is considered one of the fine, young minds in wrestling.

"What a great group it was to work with," Pirch said.

Always shy about accepting praise for his accomplishments, Pirch usually asked that any acknowledgments be directed to the team rather than to him personally.

But in 1997, he earned accolades even he couldn't side step. The National High School Coaches Association recognized Pirch as the "National High School Coach of the Year" at the NCAA championships in Cleveland, Ohio. Months earlier, he had been named the state's "Coach of the Year" by the Arizona Coaches Association. In the high school coaching profession, those two honors are the most prestigious that can be earned.

But there are also some other personal honors that Pirch as deserving as he is has not received. For many years, former Payson High School Athletic Director Barry Smith kept in his desk nomination papers that would have made Pirch eligible for the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Had the coach applied, he'd have been a shoo-in.

But, Pirch never filled out the application and to this day admits he's a bit reluctant about doing so.

"Maybe in the future," he said.

Smith has an alternative plan if Pirch doesn't consider membership.

"If he won't (fill out the applications), maybe we'll have to do it for him," Smith said.

In reflecting on one of the most storied coaching careers in Arizona sports history, Pirch says the entire experience "has been an absolute blessing. It was a great ride, I have so many great memories."

For the former coach, when the new wrestling season begins next fall under newly appointed coach Dave LaMotte filling the void won't be a problem.

"There will be a little more time for the family and I enjoy the outdoors. I can spend more time with both," he said.

Also, he plans on continuing his social studies teaching career at both Payson High School and Eastern Arizona College.

"I love teaching," he said.

In the days since Pirch's resignation was officially accepted by the district, the former coach has kept a low profile, preferring to ride off into the sunset much like a cowboy hero of the Old West.

But in his wake, he's leaving a legacy of excellence and dedication few will ever match.

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