It took the strong-willed efforts of Class 5A second-ranked Mesa Red Mountain to wrestle the Tim Van Horn Memorial Tournament championship from the Payson Longhorns.
During the nine-team meet Jan. 11 and 12 in Wilson Dome, Red Mountain racked up a tournament-winning 325 points. With a tally of 295 1/2, the Longhorns finished a close second.
Third-place honors went to New Mexico defending state champion Farmington (263). Window Rock, a town known more for its basketball achievements than mat prowess, finished a surprising fourth (193).
The Horns' silver-medal showing against a powerful field that included several 4A and 5A schools could be an indication the team is on track for a run at the state title.
"The kids are coming together," coach Dave LaMotte said. "We are much better than we were earlier (this season)."
Strong signs the Horns might now have the fire power it takes to win the state 3A crown occurred when Payson produced four weight division champions more than any team in the Van Horn.
Payson's gold-medal winners included Matt McCarty (130), Zack Lee (145), Nate Lee (152) and George Coleman (215).
McCarty's championship showing, which included a 6-1 record and a win by a pin in the finale, earned him the Tim Van Horn Outstanding Wrestler Award as selected by the Van Horn family.
Zack Lee's 7-0 tournament record improved his unbeaten streak to 38 consecutive victories.
But in the championship finale against a determined Safford foe, Zack was put to the test before winning a 2-1 decision.
Zack's younger brother, Nathan, finished the tournament with a 7-0 slate that included an 8-4 win by a decision in the gold-medal round. Only a freshman, Nathan is 34-3 this season.
In a voting of coaches at tournament's end, Zack, Nathan and McCarty received all of the votes for outstanding wrestler in the middle weights. Officials named all three co-recipients of the award.
The 215-pound weight division battles turned into a George Coleman highlight film. Winning all seven of his matches by pins, Coleman dominated the field, which included a Tuba City grappler he whipped in the championship round Saturday evening.
Coleman's showing in the Van Horn makes him a strong contender for the weight division state championship Feb. 9 in Phoenix.
The Horns nearly had a fifth Van Horn weight division champion in 135-pound Larry Wilbanks.
After advancing to the championship round with a 6-0 record, Wilbanks locked horns with a Red Mountain wrestler he had decisioned earlier in the tournament. This time around, the Mesa grappler reversed the tables on Wilbanks with an 8-3 victory.
While Wilbanks' loss was disheartening, it was incurred against a seasoned mat veteran ranked third in the 5A ranks.
Van Horn bronze medalists from Payson included Brad Wilembrecht (112), Cole Newbold (160) and Bryce River (189). Wilembrecht finished with a 4-3 slate, Newbold was 6-2 and River 6-2.
Other tournament medalists from Payson included Ryan Holland (119; fifth), Shane Hounshell (125; sixth), Daniel Reisdorf (140; fifth), Tyler Williams (171; fifth) and Ingo Beck (heavyweight; fifth).
Holland finished the tournament 3-4, Hounshell was 1-6, Reisdorf went 3-4, Williams compiled a 3-4 mark and Beck won four and lost three.
Hot mat action
In the tournament's opening round dual meets Friday, the Horns whipped Coolidge 67-6 and Glendale Mountain Ridge 42-30, but lost to Red Mountain 42-22. But the most exciting dual of the day came late in the afternoon when Payson took to the mat against Farmington.
"It was the best dual I've seen since I've been up here (in Payson)," LaMotte said.
Early in the match, Payson trailed the New Mexico school by 22 points and appeared to be in for an old-fashioned rear-end kicking.
But Payson inched closer with a win by decision in the 152-pound match.
As the dual wore on, consecutive pins by Newbold, River and Coleman deadknotted the score at 33-33, with only the heavyweight match remaining.
The prospects of a Payson win appeared precarious when Ingo Beck had to face a Farmington wrestler who had finished fourth in the state of New Mexico last season.
Late in the third period, Beck and the Farmington wrestler were locked in a torrid 5-5 tie. With about 13 seconds remaining, Beck scored on a two-point takedown to assume a 7-5 lead.
But, the drama wasn't over.
Almost as quickly as Beck had executed the takedown, his foe escaped to narrow the count to 7-6. That, however, was the Farmington wrestler's last gasp effort.
With Beck's win by a single point, Payson scored 24 consecutive points to win the hard-fought clash 36-33.
Later in the locker room, LaMotte said, Beck told his teammates that the incredible rally the Horns had put on to make up the 22-point deficit helped inspire him to wrestle his best.
"He knew the (result of the) match was on him," LaMotte said.
Next up for the Horns is tomorrow's (Saturday) jaunt to Aztec, N.M. for a 1 p.m. dual.
Last year, Aztec visited Payson in a home and away two-year agreement between the two schools.
Aztec boasts one of the most successful wrestling programs in New Mexico, which has LaMotte predicting his team is in for a stern test.
"It could be a barn burner," he said.
The most crucial meet of the season, an East region dual against No. 1 ranked Show Low, will wrap up the regular season Jan. 30 in Wilson Dome.
The 6:30 p.m. varsity encounter will be preceded by a jayvee dual at 5:30 p.m.