It has only taken Longhorn wrestling coach Dave LaMotte about two weeks of preseason training to assess his matmen.
“We’ll be a good tournament team, but not so good in duals,” he said.
This means the newest edition of the Horns has a solid nucleus of talented players but the roster lacks depth.
LaMotte’s reasoning is that a handful of good wrestlers can pile up enough points in tournament to propel a team to victory. But a team that doesn’t field good athletes in all weight classes might struggle in dual meet competition.
The Longhorns greatest deficiency will be in the 112-pound weight class that currently is vacant.
If an athlete cannot be found to fill the void, Payson will be giving up six forfeit points in each dual meet this season.
At Thursday afternoon’s practice session, LaMotte said he was not optimistic the team could find an athlete to compete in the 112-pound class.
Although the Horns will most likely be giving up the forfeit, the team does have a solid group of wrestlers that could more than make up for the deficiency.
The veterans to be counted on to pile up points include Zack Lee, Matt McCarty, George Coleman, Bryce River, Nathan Lee and Larry Wilbanks.
At the conclusion of last season, LaMotte named McCarty, Coleman, River and Zack Lee co-captains for the 2002-2003 season. At the onset of preseason practices, LaMotte tapped Wilbanks, a junior, to join the four seniors as co-captains or “leaders.”
Last season, Zack Lee led the Longhorns to a state bronze medal showing by winning the 145-pound state championship. During the course of the campaign, he racked up a 48-0 record and led the team in take-downs with 106.
Zack also was one of three Longhorn wrestlers to receive an “Iron Man” award for not missing a practice session the entire season. The other recipients were River and McCarty.
Zack’s run to the state weight division championship began when he was a freshman and finished fourth at state. As a sophomore, he was a state runner-up.
This season, Zack will be competing in the 152-pound class where he is a solid choice to win a second state championship.
Moving up a weight class, from 145 to 152, won’t be anything new for Zack. Last spring at Apache Junction High School, he won the 154-pound junior (17-18 years) weight division championship.
Zack’s younger brother, Nathan, a sophomore, was chosen the most promising newcomer last season. On his way to the 152-pound Class 3A state championship, Nathan compiled a 45-3 record.
During a rigorous off-season that had him competing around the United States, he won a freshman national championship tournament and was the 160-pound champion of the USA freestyles tournament at Tempe Desert Vista High School.
Wilbanks returns to the Longhorn fold as the defending 135-pound East region champion, a state runner-up and the recipient last season off the team’s “most promising sophomore award.”
Wilbanks is expected to move up to the 160-pound division this season.
In Coleman, the Longhorns will have a 210-pounder who grappled his way to a state runner-up finish last season while battling a troublesome knee injury. He led the team in wins by falls (26) and was named the Longhorns most improved wrestler.
River is another stalwart the Horns can turn to for points. Competing in the 189-pound class last year, he finished third in the East regional tournament and seventh at state. This year as a senior, River is projected to become a state weight division contender.
McCarty is another PHS wrestler who challenge for a 3A title. He brings to the mat the experience of having finished fifth in the state last season as a 130-pounder. For the upcoming season, McCarty will compete in the 140-pound class.
In River, Wilbanks, Coleman, McCarty, Nathan Lee and Zack Lee, the Horns have what LaMotte calls “six strong kids” who will lead the Longhorns to what Payson fans hope will be a state championship.
The road to state
To win a state crown, the Horns need a strong effort from several less seasoned, but promising, members of the team. Among them are Tyler Goodman (103), Brad Wilembrecht (119), David Cluff (125), Lee Perez (130), Shane Hounshell (135), Andy Sanders (135), Daniel Reisdorf (145), Sammy Perez (heavyweight), Alex Winchester (heavyweight) and P.J. Larby (heavyweight).
The trio of heavyweights are battling in preseason practices to replace Ingo Beck who graduated last spring with the PHS class of 2002. The Horns also have to find a replacement for 160-pound Cole Newbold, who also graduated last spring.
The Horns stiffest competition for region and state honors will come from defending East and 3A champion Show Low.
Payson will receive its first glimpse of the powerful Cougars Jan. 8 at Show Low High School. If the season unfolds as projected, that dual could produce the eventual East regular season champion.
Snowflake and Blue Ridge also are expected to feature strong East teams.
“Blue Ridge was good last year and only lost a couple of kids (to graduation),” PHS assistant coach Don Heizer said.
The Horns make their debut Dec. 6 and 7 at the Warrior Classic at Mesa Westwood High School. The meet will feature some of the most accomplished 4A and 5A teams in the state. Because the competition is fierce, LaMotte said the meet is a solid early season test for his wrestlers.
After battling in the storied two-day mat war, the Horn matmen should be well prepared for anything that can be thrown at them the remainder of the campaign.