The mother of all mat wars will pit two of the country's most accomplished wrestling programs against one another in an intense showdown this weekend.
The suspense of Saturday's 7 p.m. clash has been building since last spring, when coaches from Aztec, N.M. and Payson high schools agreed to square off against one another. Much of the hoopla surrounding the match can be attributed to the fact both power-packed teams are highly ranked in national wrestling circles.
The most recent edition of Wrestling USA lists Aztec as the nation's fifth-ranked school on its "Dynasty Teams of the Last Decade" rankings. Not far down the list, in 16th place, sits the Payson Longhorns. A lot of pride, buckets of sweat and hours of hard work have gone into molding both teams into the powerhouses they are today.
Aztec enters the match with an eye-popping set of accomplishments that includes 11 consecutive New Mexico state championships. The school of about 1,500 students competes in a conference that would be the equivalent of Arizona's 4A.
Since 1987, Aztec has dominated the state, piling up a 221-3 dual meet record while winning 122 tournaments. Last year, the team was 25-2 and returned two state champions and three state placers.
In Aztec, coach Rodney Romero's feats have paralleled the Herculean mat accomplishments of former National High School coach of the Year Dennis Pirch.
Under Pirch the last 10 years, the Horns have compiled a 175 dual meet record on their way to eight Class 3A state championships. Since 1974, the team has won 97 tournaments and last season finished with a 22-1 record, losing only to Winslow.
This season, the Horns return six-state-placer and two-time state champion R.C. LaHaye.
The only other Arizona team on USA Wrestling's dynasty list is 16th ranked Tucson Sunnyside.
The Horn roster
By start time Saturday evening, the Horn's lineup should be at full strength and buoyed by the return of 215-pound Bryce River and 171-pound Rocky Beery.
Beery, a state third-place finisher last season, missed all of last weekend's Van Horn tournament due to a death in his family. He has since returned and is practicing with the team.
River, who was ill, participated in the Van Horn Friday and on into Saturday morning. But by midday the illness took its toll and he was forced to withdraw from competition and settle for a fourth-place finish. River is expected to be back at near full strength for the Aztec match.
With those two veterans in the lineup, the Horns will sport a much more potent attack than they did last weekend in the Van Horn.
LaHaye might be the most heralded wrestler in the lineup, but the Horns do boast a crew of seasoned veterans capable of more than holding their own.
Among them are Matt McCarty (125), Aaron Bratholt (130), Zack Lee (135), Levi Armstrong (145) and Caleb Miller (152).
McCarty is a sophomore letter-winner, Bratholt was sixth at state last year, Lee finished fourth at state and Armstrong was a state runner-up. Miller is a two-time state runner-up.
All lend experience and mat moxie to the Horn cause.
The Horns have also received a pleasant surprise this year in the form of 103-pound freshman Billy Bob Hoyt. Most any time the youngster steps on the mat, he's a threat to walk away a winner.
Others who could contribute to a possible Longhorn victory party include Larry Wilbanks (112), Daniel Reisdorf (119), Cole Newbold (160) and Ingo Beck (heavyweight).