As it was billed, the 11th Annual Tim Van Horn Invitational Tournament turned into a stirring mat war that pitted some of the best wrestling teams in the state against one another.
The two-day affair wrapped up Saturday evening in front of a raucous crowd in Wilson Dome, with three-time defending tournament champion Gilbert Highland claiming its fourth crown.
Mesa Red Mountain grappled its way to second place in front of the host Payson Longhorns who placed third. Both Gilbert and Red Mountain are highly ranked 5A state powers. Payson entered the tournament as the top-ranked 3A school.
Gilbert finished with 363 points, Red Mountain had 340 and Payson 305.
Fourth-place honors surprisingly went to the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets. Fresh off a 48-22 dual pounding administered by Payson, Blue Ridge was not expected to be among the top finishers in the power-packed 10-team field. But rising to the occasion, the Jackets who are known more for the their football prowess than wrestling success put on a solid mat showing throughout the tournament.
If a highlight film of the Van Horn was made, it would most likely lead off with the 140-pound championship match that pitted a pair of Arizona's finest wrestlers against one another.
Payson's R.C. LaHaye, a two-time defending 3A state champion, out-pointed Gilbert Highland's Chris Smith 11-4 in the exciting finale. Because the undefeated Smith entered the tournament as the top-ranked defending state 5A champion, the match was one of the most anticipated ever contested in Wilson Dome.
Prior to the gold-medal showdown, LaHaye, also undefeated, said he was eagerly anticipating going head-to-head against Smith, even though the two were good friends.
Relying on an aggressive attack, the Payson grappler took an early lead over his heralded 5A foe, then powered his way to the triumph.
"I wanted to put pressure on him the whole match," LaHaye said following the win. LaHaye and Smith advanced to the championship round by compiling perfect records in separate tournament pools.
LaHaye who finished 6-0 in the tournament was top seeded in the five-person gold pool. Smith was the No. 1 seed in the four-person purple pool.
With the triumph, LaHaye stamped himself as the best 140-pounder in the state regardless of school size classification. Because he also won his weight division at the prestigious Estancia, Calif. tournament earlier this month, a case could be made that he is also the best wrestler in a two-state area.
LaHaye has now won 107 consecutive matches and is 38-0 this season.
More gold in the dome
In addition to LaHaye's title, the Longhorn team cause also picked up valuable first-place points when sophomore Zack Lee won the 135-pound championship.
After finishing undefeated in the gold pool, Lee out-pointed Gilbert Highland's Eric Stone in the championship finale. Stone was the number-one seed from the purple pool.
Other Rim country wrestlers who medaled in the tournament included Billy Bob Hoyt (103; second), Larry Wilbanks (112; second), Daniel Reisdorf (119; fifth), Matt McCarty (125; fifth), Aaron Bratholt (130; third), Caleb Miller (152; second), Cole Newbold (160; fifth), Levi Amon (171; sixth), George Coleman (189; third), Bryce River (215; fourth), Ingo Beck (heavyweight; third).
In the 215-pound competition, River might have advanced further into the championship round had it not been for an illness that caused him to withdraw from competition at midmorning Saturday. With the injury default, he was awarded fourth place.
The Horns were also without the services of 171-pound Rocky Beery who did not compete due to a death in his family. Beery, a state third-place finisher last season, is expected to rejoin the team this week.
Now that the excitement of the tournament has wrapped up, the Longhorns must focus their attention on a return to crucial East region competition.
In what will be a showdown for the regional championship, the Longhorns travel to Snowflake Jan. 24 for a 7 p.m. contest.
If the Horns can emerge victorious over the state third-ranked Lobos, Payson High will claim its 23 regional championship. Horn coach Dennis Pirch who founded the team 28 years ago is anticipating a stiff challenge from the tradition-rich Lobos.
"It's gonna be a brawl," he said.
The varsity match will be preceded by a jayvee contest at 6 p.m. Coaches and wrestlers say they are hoping Payson's many fans will travel to Snowflake to counteract what is expected to be strong hometown support for the Lobos.