With only 11 wrestlers entered in 14 weight classes, the Longhorns weren't given much of a chance of defending their Rim Country Duals Tournament title. After all, teams that give up 18 points on three forfeits usually don't sport the firepower to earn tournament honors.
But by finishing third in the 12-team field, the Horns slowed by a lineup depleted by illness put on a gritty show Friday and Saturday in Wilson Dome.
In addition to earning the tournament's bronze medal, the Horns produced a tournament high five weight class champions including Larry Wilbanks (135), Zack Lee (145), Nathan Lee (152), Bryce River (189) and George Coleman (215).
In the tournament format, the teams which included several 4A and 5A Phoenix-area schools were placed in one of two pools for eight dual matches that began early Friday afternoon on four mats in the dome.
Competing in the gold pool, Payson finished second, losing only a 35-34 decision to Phoenix North Friday evening.
At the conclusion of the dual round robins late Saturday morning, the top two teams in both pools were cross bracketed into semifinal matches that featured the one-two finishers.
As a runner-up, Payson was paired against pool champion Desert Mountain which defeated the Horns 45-27.
With the loss, Payson fell into the consolation round against longtime mat rival Apache Junction. In a match highlighted by wins from Ingo Beck (heavyweight) and Coleman, the Horns defeated AJ 50-30.
In the championship finale, North whipped Desert Mountain 44-26.
Late Saturday afternoon, tournament director Don Heizer oversaw a series of individual matches that featured the wrestlers in each weight division with the best overall records against one another.
For the Longhorns, one of the highlights of those showdowns was Wilbanks, who finished with a 9-0 slate. His exploits earned him the Outstanding Wrestler in the Lower Weight Divisions (103 to 135) award.
The Longhorns copped a second "Outstanding" title when 145-pound Zack Lee was tapped the best among the middleweights. Lee finished as the weight division champion with a 9-0 record.
The outstanding wrestler winners were chose in a voting of head coaches at the conclusion of the tournament.
In addition to the gold medals earned by Wilbanks and Lee, Payson received a stellar performance from Coleman who finished with 9-0 credentials. His unbeaten streak included eight wins by falls and one by a major decision.
"He had an outstanding tournament," PHS coach Dave LaMotte said.
Like Coleman, River turned in a gutsy show of determination that earned him a tournament championship.
River's road to the title began at the conclusion of the football season when he vowed to lose almost 40 pounds so he could compete in the 189-pound division where the Horns had no seasoned athlete.
True to his word, River weighed in Friday morning less than 189 pounds. The month-long diet, he said, had been a test of his will, but well worth the effort.
After making weight, River finished 8-1, losing only a narrow decision to a Phoenix North grappler.
Prior to the onset of the individual tournament, River said he was confident he could avenge that loss. Again living up to his word, River rebounded to beat the North foe 16-9 in the championship round.
Nathan Lee's weight class championship came as a mild surprise mostly because the youngster is an untested freshman entered in a traditionally tough weight class.
But wrestling with a moxie well beyond his years, Lee finished second in his pool before going on to win the gold medal with an 8-1 record.
The Longhorn cause also picked up valuable contributions from Brad Wilembrecht (112), Matt McCarty (130) Daniel Reisdorf (140) and Beck.
Wilembrecht, McCarty and Beck were third in their weight divisions. Reisdorf was fourth.
One of the weight divisions the Horns were forced to forfeit was 103 pounds. Since the onset of the season, LaMotte has not been able to find an athlete to man the position. A couple of students have expressed an interest, the coach said, but none has made the commitment to turn out full time for the team.
Due to last week's snowstorm, a dual meet scheduled for Dec. 12 in Snowflake was postponed.
According to LaMotte, the all-important regional match could be made up Jan. 30 in Show Low.
Originally that was to be a season-ending dual meet between Payson and the Cougars.
If Jan. 30 is selected as the make-up date, it would turn into a three-way East showdown between Payson, Snowflake and Show Low. In such a tri-meet, the regional championship could hinge on the outcomes.
However, because the matches would be contested only three days before the regional tournament begins, LaMotte is opposed to that scenario.
Other dates midway through the campaign would be more appealing for the make-up match, LaMotte said
PHS Athletic Director Dave Bradley and the coach are trying to find a date, other than Jan. 30, that would be agreeable to both Snowflake and Payson.