Horns Primed And Ready For State Title Run

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Regional runner-up honors and a state third-place finish would be commendable achievements for most high school sports teams.

But in the storied Payson High School wrestling program, the silver and bronze medals earned last season came up short of what the team accomplished since its founding in 1973.

From 1980 to 2000, the Longhorns reaped 10 state championships and 19 regional titles. During that stint, Payson grew into a prep wrestling legend by winning five consecutive state championships.

The community earned the title "Small Town Wrestling Capital of America" and the team was honored with a national top-50 ranking.

If the early season showings of the current Longhorn team are any indication, the squad may be on the doorstep of returning to those glory days of yesteryear.

In the recently concluded Rim Country Duals tournament, the Longhorns wreaked havoc on the 12-team field, whipping most teams -- including several from the 4A and 5A ranks -- by lopsided scores.

The first indication the Horns are once again going to be a state power came at the 17th Annual Warrior Kick-Off Classic held in Mesa. There, the Horns battled to a 6-2 record and a fourth-place finish in a 16-team field that included most of the big school powers from Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe.

Payson's impressive efforts at the Duals and the Kick-off Classic were fueled by six matmen who form the nucleus of the Horns title hopes.

The nucleus

They include Matt McCarty (140), Zack Lee (152), Larry Wilbanks (160), Nate Lee (171), Bryce River (189) and George Coleman (215).

This season, Zack Lee and Nate Lee and Wilbanks are 17-0, McCarty and Coleman are 16-1 and River is 15-1.

Zack, a senior, and his brother Nate, a sophomore, began the season as defending regional and state champions.

At the Warrior Classic, the two enhanced their mat reputations even further by compiling 8-0 records and earning spots on the all-tournament team.

In the Rim Country Duals, both finished with 8-0 records and won their weight division titles. Zack received the award for the fastest pin of the tournament (5 seconds) and was named the most valuable wrestler in the upper weight divisions.

Wilbanks tipped off the campaign as a regional runner-up and state silver medalist. In Mesa, he finished 8-0 on his way to the 160-pound championship. He picked up his second tournament title of the young season by winning his weight division title at the Duals.

McCarty opened the 2002 campaign as the defending East region 140-pound champ.

During the Mesa tournament, he racked up a 7-1 record, losing only to a rugged foe in the weight class finals.

At the Duals, he was named the most valuable wrestler in the lower weight classes after grappling his way to an individual crown.

Last season, while battling a troublesome knee injury, Coleman finished second in the East region and second at state.

As one of the favorites to win the 215-pound title this year, the senior strongman was 7-1 at the Mesa tournament. His only loss was 14-5 to Class 5A defending state champion Bryan DiPalermo of Tucson Canyon del Oro. At the Duals, Coleman dominated his weight class, winning his eight matches by falls.

For Bryce River, wrestling is a big part of his family. His older brother, Blair, was a longtime Longhorn heavyweight who won the state championship in 1999. Following in his brother's footsteps, Bryce finished second in the East last season and fifth at state.

This year, he could be destined for bigger and better accomplishments.

At the Warrior Classic he showed he sported the stuff champions are made of by finishing second in the star-studded 189-pound division.

In the Duals, he was undefeated chalking up eight consecutive wins by falls.

With McCarty, Lee, Wilbanks, River and Coleman leading the way, the Longhorn roster sports a solid group of wrestlers who might rival the best of Longhorn lineups from the championship years.

All must contribute

For the Longhorns to stake claim to a state title, others on the team must step up and provide valuable team points. Throughout the season, coach Dave LaMotte and his staff have shuffled the lineup -- especially in the 112-, 119- and 125-pound classes -- trying to put the best team possible on the mat.

Some of those on whom the success of the Horns could hinge are Tyler Goodman (103), Brad Wilembrecht (119), Lee Perez (130), David Cluff (125), Shane Hounshell (135), Andy Sanders (145) and Sammy Perez (275).

In that crew, Wilembrecht has been the most effective, wrestling to a 15-2 record.

Recently, Mike Orozco turned out for the team and wrestled one day of the Rim Duals. He has proven he could be a big help once he rounds into shape.

A huge test for the Horn matmen is on the schedule for Jan. 3-4 at the Mingus Invitational Tournament. There, the Horns will challenge some of the best 4A and 5A schools in the state.

A strong finish there, would stamp the Horns a legitimate Class 3A state title contender.

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