With no mat action on the holiday sports agenda, Longhorn wrestling team members are using the winter respite to tune up their skills for a run at East region honors.
Payson High begins pursuit of that coveted title Jan. 9 in Wilson Dome against longtime regional rival Round Valley. The West region's Higley is also slated to participate in the three-way meet. Because the school is a not member of the East, results of its dual meet clashes against RV and Payson will not affect the regional standings.
A clash that could play a huge role in determining the East champion is a dual meet originally slated for Dec. 12 in Snowflake. Due to snow and adverse driving conditions on that day, Payson and Snowflake school officials agreed to reschedule the meet for later in the season.
Originally, athletic directors at Snowflake and Payson pointed toward a season-ending meet Jan. 30 in Wilson Dome against Show Low as a possible makeup date.
With Show Low in the mix, the dual would have become a three-way affair involving the teams expected to vie for the East championship.
Longhorn coach Dave LaMotte, however, balked at that date, saying he'd like to reschedule Snowflake earlier in the season. He reasoned that putting the three most powerful teams into one final showdown only three days before the East championship tournament (Feb. 2) might not be the best way to determine a regular season champion.
Officials from Snowflake and Payson will gather in early January to make a final decision on the make-up date.
The Horns will open the new wrestling year with a solid nucleus of athletes who have shown the potential to lead the Horns to the region title. They include Larry Wilbanks (135), Zack Lee (145), Nathan Lee (152), Bryce River (189) and George Coleman (215). All five wrestled their way to weight-class championships at the Rim Country Duals held earlier this season.
What made the feat even more impressive is the fact that the Payson crew had to defeat several 5A "big school" foes from Phoenix and Tucson on their way to the titles.
A pair of the most stellar performances were turned in by Wilbanks and Zack Lee who were voted the tournament's "Outstanding Wrestlers."
Wilbanks, a sophomore, earned the title for the lower weight divisions (103 to 135 pounds) and Zack Lee won for the middle weights (140 to 171 pounds). During the tournament, both compiled 9-0 records.
Also unbeaten was Coleman who dominated the proceedings with eight wins by falls and one on a major decision.
Following the tournament, LaMotte praised Coleman, saying the showing was the best of the teenager's Payson High career.
Nathan Lee's Duals championship was unexpected in that he entered in a traditionally tough weight class as an inexperienced freshman, but rising to the challenge, he won the gold medal by posting an 8-1 record.
River's performance was probably the biggest success story of the early season. After turning in a highly successful campaign last year as a 215-pounder, River was expected to return to the same weight class this season. But, at the onset of preseason practices, the then 230-pounder decided the team needed help in the 189-pound slot.
He immediately embarked on a weight-loss program to shed weight so he could compete in the lighter class.
Although he didn't make the 189-pound weight for a season opening three-way meet Dec. 5, he was ready for the Duals tournament. Wrestling lighter than he had been since his days at Rim Country Middle School, River won the 189-pound championship compiling an 8-1 record.
The most dramatic moments of his gold-medal run occurred during the tournament's final match in which he was pitted against a Phoenix North opponent who had beaten him earlier in the tournament.
The Horns big-five of Wilbanks, Zack Lee, Nathan Lee, River and Coleman will certainly shoulder much to the team's hopes for an East championship title. But, others on the roster will also be counted on to provide team points. They include Brad Wilembrecht (112), Matt McCarty (130), Daniel Reisdorf (140) and Ingo Beck (heavyweight). All of the grapplers will have to help overcome a possible six-point forfeit the team will have to give up unless an athlete can be found to man the 103-pound spot in the Horn lineup.
Throughout the Duals tournament and in the season opener, the Horns forfeited the class. By the time the school district's holiday break rolled around, the team still had not found someone to fill the slot. However, LaMotte and the team members continued to scour the campus looking for candidates.