A wrestling match that was billed in the Valley area as "the premier dual meet of the season" turned into a proving ground for a band of young Payson High School wrestlers.
The Warrior Class Invitational drew 13 of the state's best wrestling teams to Westwood High School Friday and Saturday.
In the impressive field, that included mostly 4A and 5A schools, only Payson and Chandler Seton represented the small school 3A conference.
The tournament, PHS coach Dave LaMotte said, featured some of the best competition he has seen in his coaching tenure in Arizona, that includes several years as head coach at Gilbert.
The tournament format divided the schools into two pools allowing the individual wrestlers to compete in seven dual matches over the course of the two days.
According to LaMotte, the orange pool in which Payson was entered was the toughest of the tournament.
After finishing with a 2-4 record in pool play, the Horns were seeded into a tournament-ending match against Chandler High School.
A 49-24 win over the Wolves lifted Payson to a ninth place tournament finish.
In pool play that tipped off Friday afternoon, the Horns opened play with a 70-6 victory over Sunnyslope.
In the second round, the Horns lost to eventual tournament champion Mesa Mountain View 57-11.
Glendale Mountain Ridge dealt the Horns a 36-26 loss, as did Gilbert 51-9.
Gilbert, LaMotte said, was the most physical team in the tournament and should become a force in 5A wrestling circles.
After three consecutive losses to big school powerhouses, the Horns rebounded to whip Casa Gande 69-12.
Pool play for Payson wrapped up with a 43-28 loss to host Westwood.
Rather than crowning tournament weight class champions, directors honored wrestlers who finished undefeated, 7-0, as all-tournament team members.
Payson was represented on the team by 145-pound Zack Lee who compiled an unblemished mark that included one pin and a technical fall.
The Horns also had two wrestlers, Larry Wilbanks and George Coleman, finish with just one loss.
In the 135-pound division, Wilbanks only a sophomore was 6-1. Coleman, a 215-pounder, also was 6-1.
The experience of challenging one-on-one some of the best athletes in the state should bode well for Lee, Wilbanks and Coleman once East region play rolls around, LaMotte said.
Other wrestlers, and their records, representing the Longhorns in Mesa were: Brad Wilembrech (112; 2-5), Ryan Holland (119; 3-3) Shane Hounshell (125; 4-3), Matt McCarty (130; 4-3), Daniel Reisdorf (140; 4-3), Nat Lee (152; 5-2), Cole Newbold (160; 3-4) and Nelson Beck (Hwt.; 1-3).
In the heavyweight division, LaMotte rotated Beck with 200-pound junior Bryce River who is trying to lose weight to drop to the 189-pound class.
As a heavyweight in the tournament, River finished 3-0.
The Horn coaching staff also experimented in the 171- and 189-pound division inserting wrestlers who were more than a tad undersized.
Ty Williamson, a 158-pound freshman, was 2-2 among the 171-pounders.
Kevin Moran, who weighs about 165, was 1-5 battling in the 189-pound division.
Although the Longhorns were outmuscled in some of the individual clashes, the tournament provided a good learning experience for the fledgling Rim country grapplers.
"It was a real education, a test, and I was real proud of the kids and the way they conducted themselves," LaMotte said.
Next up for the Horns is a three-way meet Wednesday in Wilson Dome against Winslow and Queen Creek. Start times are 4:30, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. (See Sports Talk).
On Dec. 8, Payson High will host a junior varsity multi-meet that has attracted 16 teams from around the state.
The meet, which will be held on three mats, will start at 8 a.m. and continue until about 3 p.m.
There is no admission charge to the meet.