Payson High School home of Arizona's No. 1 ranked Class 3A wrestling squad is set to host several of the state's elite 5A "big school" teams this weekend at the Tim Van Horn Memorial Wrestling Tournament.
That challenge is nothing new for the Horns who only recently returned from California's prestigious Estancia Invitational Tournament. The fray drew three-time California Interscholastic Federation Champion Centennial, as well as 30 other topnotch teams from around the state.
Despite the rugged competition, the Horns wrestled their way to a second-place showing only five points behind Centennial.
At the Van Horn tournament which will begin at 2 p.m. Friday and wraps up at 5 p.m. Saturday with the championship finals the Horns' stiffest opposition will probably come from a trio of Valley teams Gilbert Highland, Mesa Red Mountain and Glendale Mountain Ridge.
As three-time defending Van Horn champions, Highland will bring a rock-solid team that is a favorite to win the tournament a fourth consecutive year.
Highland visits Payson boasting a lofty state fourth-place ranking in the most recent Arizona Coaches Association 5A poll.
Along with Highland, the Horns will have to contend with a powerful Red Mountain team that is currently ranked third in the state (5A).
Although Mountain Ridge is not state-ranked, PHS coach Dennis Pirch expects the Glendale team to be in the thick of the title chase.
Deming, N.M. relatively unknown in local wrestling circles is also set to participate. A trio of 3A teams Blue Ridge, Safford and Coolidge will join Payson as the "small school" entries in the 10 team field.
Blue Ridge is no stranger to the Horns, having gone head-to-head against the five-time defending state champions Jan. 10 in Winslow. Payson had little trouble in trouncing the Yellow Jackets 48-22.
Coolidge and Payson haven't met this season, but the Bears visit Wilson Dome with a state fifth-place ranking and two defending state champions manning the 112- and 130-pound weight divisions.
The Longhorns will counter the Bears' champs with 112-pound Brad Wilembrecht or Larry Wilbanks and 130-pound Aaron Bratholt. As freshmen, Wilembrecht and Wilbanks will be competing in their first Van Horn tournament. Bratholt a senior is a veteran in the event. As a state sixth-place finisher last season, he has the moxie to make a run at a Van Horn title, despite the presence of the Coolidge champion.
The individual highlight of the tournament should occur in the 140-pound division where Payson's slot is manned by two-time defending state champion R.C. LaHaye.
His greatest opposition should come from Gilbert Highland's Chris Smith who like LaHaye is a defending state champion and undefeated this season.
The last time LaHaye was beaten in a high school match was early in his sophomore year (1998) by a Santa Cruz athlete. The hard-wrestling teenager has won 101 consecutive matches and is 32-0 this season.
Impressive as that win streak is, it could be severely tested against Smith.
The irony in the LaHaye-Smith clash is that the two youngsters are actually good friends. Last summer, when LaHaye was readying himself for the USA National Freestyle Tournament, Smith and his twin brother traveled to the Rim country to assist LaHaye in his training. While in Payson, the twins were guests in the LaHaye home.
"Chris and R.C. have a lot of common goals," R.C.'s father, Ray LaHaye, said. Although they're buddies, the friendship goes out the window once the two meet.
"When we step on the mat, that changes everything," LaHaye said. To emerge victorious, LaHaye must counter several of Smith's strong wrestling moves.
"He has a good front headlock and a good arm drag series," he said.
The rest of the roster
In addition to LaHaye's presence, the Horn lineup sports a nucleus of other talented wrestlers capable of vying for weight division honors.
Among them are Billy Bob Hoyt (103), Nathan Lee (135), Levi Armstrong (145) and Caleb Miller (152).
Last season, Lee was a fourth-place finisher at state; Miller and Armstrong were state runners-up.
Although he is an inexperienced freshman, Hoyt has shown the talent and determination to be a force in his weight division.
All four athletes were silver medalists at the Estancia tournament.
Other stalwarts in the Horn lineup include Matt McCarty (125), George Coleman (189), Blair River (215) and Ingo Beck (heavyweight).
For the Horns, question marks exist in the 119- and 160-pound classes. In California, Payson was shut out in both weight divisions.
The team could also experience rocky times in the 171-pound competition. Season-long starter Rocky Beery, a state third-place finisher, will be out of state due to a death in the family. His absence leaves a good- sized hole for coaches to fill.
The Van Horn tournament, formerly known as the Payson Invitational, is contested each year in the memory of former wrestling team booster Tim Van Horn. More than a decade ago, he was killed in a tragic automobile accident.
In addition to being a strong supporter of the wrestling program, Van Horn's two sons Ansel and Doyle were former members of the team.
Admission to the tournament is $3 for adults and $2 for students per session. Tournament passes good at all sessions are $8 for adults and $7 for students.