When Payson High School wrestling coaches opted out of the Bolsa Grande, Calif. Invitational Tournament two years ago, they reasoned the move was to find better competition for their charges.
For a decade, the Horns dominated the Bolsa Grande affair, racking up one lopsided victory after another. The easy wins made championships oh-hum experiences for Horn veterans.
Last January, the Horns put Bolsa Grande in the rear view mirror and traveled to the Costa Mesa area where they entered the more prestigious Estancia High School Invitational
There, the coaches and athletes found all the opposition they could hope for in a field of California's best 30 teams. Despite the abundance of strong squads present last year, the Horns managed to squeeze out a two-point tournament victory over runner-up Corona Centennial High School.
Last weekend, the five-time Arizona state defending champion Horns returned to Estancia looking to defend their hard-earned title. This time around, though, Centennial the three-year California Interscholastic Association State champions had the Horns' number.
Posting 260.5 points, Centennial claimed the Estancia crown over a Rim country crew that finished second with 254.5 points.
El Dorado limped into the bronze-medal slot with 173.
The loss to Centennial was the Horns' first defeat tournament or dual meet of the season.
On the mat
Entering the championship round Saturday evening, the Longhorns had seven wrestlers in the finals and appeared to be in an excellent position to make a run at a second consecutive Estancia title.
But by the time the final whistle had blown, only one of Payson's seven entries in the finals emerged victorious. Those losses sent PHS hopes sailing into the Pacific Ocean breeze.
On the other side of the mat, Centennial who had been in a neck-and-neck dog fight with Payson throughout the tournament turned in an excellent final round showing. Of the school's eight finalists, six won weight division crowns.
Three of Centennial's gold-medal round wins were against Payson wrestlers.
"We had them. We could have easily won (the tournament) with just one more (weight division) win," coach Dennis Pirch said.
Settling for silver-medal honors didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the Horn coach who said the torrid battles in the tournament should bode well for the Horns' run for a sixth state championship.
"It was great competition," he said. "It should make us better."
Finishing with a 4-0 record, which included three wins by falls and one by a 22-9 major decision, two-time defending state champion R.C. LaHaye strong-armed the 140-pound field. Despite his almost perfect record, LaHaye was slighted in the selection of the tournament's most valuable wrestler for the lower weight classes. That honor went to El Dorado's 131-pound Chuck Rust who was 4-0 on three falls and a technical fall.
Most valuable wrestlers are chosen in a voting of coaches and match officials.
Second-place finishers among the Longhorns include Billy Bob Hoyt (103), Larry Wilbanks (112), Aaron Bratholt (130), Nathan Lee (135), Levi Armstrong (145) and Caleb Miller (152).
Hoyt, only a freshman, won three consecutive matches before dropping a 7-4 decision in the finals. Wilbanks lost 7-5 in the finals after opening with a trio of triumphs.
Bratholt kicked off the tournament with two falls and a 6-4 win before dropping his final match on a fall.
After chalking up two falls and a one-point decision, Lee earned the right to compete in the finals. There, he lost a heartbreaking 5-4 match.
In the 145-pound championship, Armstrong saw his gold-medal dreams go by the wayside with an 8-6 loss. Earlier he'd advanced on three consecutive wins by decisions.
Miller thrived on two falls and a 9-3 triumph to earn a berth in the gold-medal round. However, in the finale, he was nipped 6-4.
The Horns also received solid contributions from four athletes who earned medals and team points by battling their way to top-six finishes.
They included Matt McCarty (125; third), Rocky Beery (171; third), George Coleman (189; fifth) and Ingo Beck (heavyweight; sixth).
The only weight classes the Horns were shut out in were 119, 160 and 215.