Although odds are stacked against them, Longhorn wrestlers are battling this weekend for Payson High School's 11th state championship.
The preliminaries of the tournament began yesterday (Thursday) at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. Action continues most of today with quarterfinal and consolation matches before wrapping up tomorrow (Saturday) with the championship rounds.
Horn coach Dave LaMotte calls the for-all-the-marbles showdown an opportunity for his young wrestlers "to test all of the hard work and dedication" they have shown this season.
The Horns enter the Arizona finale sporting 12 qualifiers in the 14 prep weight classes.
The only divisions the Longhorns will not be represented in at state are 119 and 125 pounds.
However, 112-pound qualifier Brad Wilembrecht was injured in a locker room accident Tuesday afternoon and was hospitalized overnight while being treated for a concussion.
It is doubtful Wilembrecht will be cleared to wrestle at state.
To qualify for state, wrestlers had to finish among the top four of their weight divisions at the Feb. 2 regional qualifiers.
Payson's qualifiers include Brian Papp (103), Matt McCarty (130), Larry Wilbanks (135), Daniel Reisdorf (140), Zack Lee (145), Nathan Lee (152), Cole Newbold (160), Tyler Williams (171), Bryce River (189), George Coleman (215) and Ingo Beck (275).
Leading the Longhorn charge to Memorial Coliseum will be four East regional champions McCarty, Wilbanks, Zack Lee and Nathan Lee.
In addition to winning East titles, Zack Lee and McCarty were also named the outstanding wrestlers at the championships.
Zack Lee, a junior, will take to the gold-medal games a 44-0 record that includes three most valuable wrestler awards. Those honors were earned at tournaments earlier this season. At state, his unbeaten streak could be sorely tested by South champion Paul Palma (53-2) of Safford.
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Other regional champions in the bracket include Chino Valley's Kyle Stokes (3-0) and Vincent Saganisto of Tuba City (20-9).
Zack will open pursuit of the state title against West region four-seed Chance Hauser (28-16) of Camp Verde.
McCarty travels to Phoenix boasting a 31-13 record that includes a stunning victory over Blue Ridge's Josh Reidhead in the East championship round. The loss was Reidhead's first of the season.
In the opening round at state, McCarty is paired against South four-seeded Jason Jurado (42-11) of Safford.
Nathan Lee, a freshman, will be making his first appearance at state. But with a 41-3 record and an East title to his credit, he'll sport credentials more impressive than his older counterparts.
Nathan's biggest challenge might be finding a way to wrestle past West champion Jackson Campbell (33-5) of Camp Verde.
Also in the weight class, South champ Jordan Clonts (37-4) of Safford represents a tough hurdle for Nathan to overcome.
In the first round, Nathan is pitted against Seton Catholic's Matt Kirch (26-14).
Wilbanks takes 37-6 credentials to state, but will have to contend with Gordo Villaescusa of Rio Rico who enters as the unbeaten (43-0) South champ.
Other regional champs in the division are Cody Candelaria of Holbrook (North, 26-6) and Wickenburg's Ronnie Nagel (West, 28-8).
Wilbanks opens the tournament against West four-seeded Zeb Zunda (Parker, 2-2).
Although he's not a region champion, George Coleman has as much of a chance to win the state crown as any wrestler in the 215-pound bracket.
In the East championships, Coleman 41-1 at the time was upset by Show Low's Jon McQuillan (34-3).
Throughout the match, Coleman was hobbled by a knee injury that limited his effectiveness.
If the two meet again at state, Coleman who decisioned McQuinlan 3-0 in the regular season could easily turn the tables on his Cougar foe.
Coleman opens at state against the West's three-seed Billy Adams of Chino Valley (2-1). His toughest competition, however, will probably come from Cody McDonald (Seton Catholic, south champ; 28-4) and McQuinlan.
As a second-seeded heavyweight, Beck (28-14) is paired against Queen Creek's Matt Hubbard (38-19) in the opener.
Show Low's Scott Croft (32-2), once a student at Rim Country Middle School, is the favorite to win the heavyweight title, having beaten Beck twice this season.
Another formidable wrestler in the division is Globe's Chet Huelkamp (43-3).
Newbold (25-15), the East's 160-pound runner-up, is pitted against Greyhill's Dylan Gray (24-10) in the opener.
For Newbold to claim the state title, he'll have to find a way to slip past Show Low's Taylor Spader (28-1). Spader enters state as the East champ.
In a regular season meeting between the two, Spader strung together eight takedowns to beat Newbold 16-6.
In other state first-round pairings involving Payson wrestlers, Papp (7-16) takes on Tuba City's Khayyam Riggs (30-8) and Wilembrecht (21-23) has the unenviable task of battling West champion Garrett Cupp (37-3) of Wickenburg.
Also, Reisdorf (12-22) will challenge Winslow's Dustin Taylor (30-5), Williams takes on Greg Nichols (22-13) of Sahuarita and River (33-7) is seeded against Higley's Josh Gordon (2-1).
In addition to producing 12 state qualifiers at the East region championships held Feb. 2 in Snowflake, the Horns wrestled their way to a second-place showing with 171.5 points. State number-one ranked Show Low claimed the crown by posting a 194. With 167 points, Blue Ridge was third, one point ahead of Snowflake (166).
Following the state championships, the Longhorns will be guests of Arizona State University when the Sun Devils host Iowa State at 2 p.m. Feb. 10 in Tempe.
Iowa State is coached by former Olympian Bobby Douglas who, in past years, was a frequent visitor to the Rim country, where he conducted several youth wrestling and training camps.
Also, Douglas and LaMotte are good friends, having been raised in the same West Virginia home town.
The Longhorns' season wraps up Feb. 27 with the annual awards night in Payson Elementary School.