As Payson High wrestling coach Dennis Pirch predicted last week, the East regional tournament in Wilson Dome Saturday tested the mettle of the Longhorn wrestling team, Arizona's five-time defending state champion.
The Horns out-scored Show Low by a slim 10 points to claim the team's 23rd regional championship and secure a shot at the team's sixth consecutive state title.
On the team's way to the East title, the tradition-rich Longhorns compiled 180 points to edge Show Low (170) into second, Holbrook (125) into third and Round Valley (117) into fourth.
The Horns are now focused on adding a sixth consecutive Class 3A championship to its winning record this weekend at Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Action in the big show will begin at 9 a.m. Friday and will wrap up Saturday evening with the individual championship rounds.
At state, Pirch predicts Rio Rico and Show Low will be legitimate threats to end the Horns championship win streak.
Rio Rico, the coach said, "has seven dominate wrestlers" in its lineup.
Show Low presents a tough challenge as evidenced by the Cats runner-up finish in Saturday's tournament and in a regular season meeting pitting the Deuce of Clubs crew against the Horns. In that clash, Payson survived one of its closest encounters of the season, 41-24.
The Horns will counter foes in the state tournament with 11 qualifiers in the 15 weight divisions.
Leading the Rim charge will be Larry Wilbanks (112), Aaron Bratholt (130), Zack Lee (135) and R.C. LaHaye (140).
All four are legitimate threats to win an individual state championship.
Bratholt advances as the recipient of the East tournament's outstanding wrestler in the middle weight division.
That honor was bestowed Saturday after a voting of coaches.
Also earning berths at state from Payson were East runner-ups Billy Bob Hoyt (103), Levi Armstrong (145) and George Coleman (160).
Caleb Miller (152), Cole Newbold (160) and Ingo Beck (heavyweight) advance to state as third-place qualifiers.
Rocky Beery (171), a state third-place finisher last season, earned a fourth-place seed to the 3A showdown. The only weight divisions the Longhorns will not be represented in are 119, 125 and 215.
Cats claw way to silver
As East runner-ups, the Show Low Cougars had two grapplers tapped for all-tournament honors. In the heavyweight classes, 275-pound Scott Croft was chosen, as was 103-pound Sean Seymore among the lightweights.
The Cougars hope to unseat Payson as the regional champs suffered a huge blow Saturday afternoon when 145-pound standout Timmy Williams suffered a broken elbow in a bout with a Snowflake opponent.
One of the most successful wrestlers in the 3A conference, Williams was being counted on to contend for regional and state honors, Cougar assistant coach Dar Ridgley said.