Longhorns Lose Bid For Sixth State Crown

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Payson High School's wrestling team was unstoppable until Saturday night.

The Longhorns' five-year reign as Class 3A Arizona State champions ended when upstart Rio Rico edged past the runner-up Horns by a scant three points.

During the Horns' incredible winning streak, the team never went through a rebuilding stage. It simply reloaded year after year with quality wrestlers who went on to help build the nationwide legacy of the Longhorn wrestling program, founded 28 years ago by coach Dennis Pirch.

The first hints that the Horns might have trouble nailing down a sixth consecutive state championship came last week just after the Longhorns claimed their 23rd East regional championships.

In winning the crown, the Horns were pushed to the limits by long-time rival Show Low, which finished as runner-up only 10 points behind Payson.

Another telling tale was the fact the Horns qualified only 11 wrestlers for state. That number would have caused a celebration in most high school wrestling programs. For Payson, it represented a decline from past years when the team would frequently qualify almost the entire 15-person team.

Prior to leaving for Veterans Memorial Coliseum where the 1A through 5A championships were held, Pirch said the road to another title would be a bumpy one for at least two reasons.

One: State second-ranked Rio Rico had qualified a number of top-notch wrestlers with the potential of reaching their weight division championships.

Two: The luck of the draw in the seedings had not gone Payson's way. Several of Payson's better wrestlers were seeded into brackets where it was extremely difficult to march into the championships and earn team points.

The Horn cause suffered a third setback when one of the wrestlers expected to produce state points was disqualified for a rules infraction.

Pirch's predictions that a state run would be a tough row to hoe proved accurate Saturday morning when Rio Rico wrestled the team-point lead away from Payson and then withstood a strong Longhorn comeback. The title was Rio Rico's first state wrestling championship.

Show Low finished third and Holbrook fourth.

A trio of champs

The Horns who Pirch said wrestled a "superlative and passionate final round" emerged with three weight class champions.

R.C. LaHaye won a state record 114th consecutive match and claimed the 140-state championship. Joining him on the victory stand were 152-pound Caleb Miller and 171-pound Rocky Beery.

In the 135-pound competition, Zack Lee finished as state runner-up.

After being decisioned in the tournament's second round, Billy Bob Hoyt rebounded to pin every other opponent and finished third.

Also medaling were Larry Wilbanks (114; fourth), Aaron Bratholt (130; fifth), George Coleman (189; fifth).

Finishing as runner-up was not the team's goal, but Pirch said he was extremely proud of the team members for their gutsy run at the title.

The team will gather one final time, at a yet to be determined time and location, for its annual season ending awards celebration.

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