Longhorn wrestlers Nate Lee and Larry Wilbanks are among the Payson High athletes who will benefit most from the school's move to the 4A conference from the 3A ranks. That's because life in the big-school conference will afford the duo new opportunities to showcase the mat skills that helped them dominate 3A competition.
Wilbanks, a 160-pound senior, easily won the East region and 3A state championship last season. On his way to the two titles, Wilbanks steamrolled over small-school opponents.
Lee, a junior, also won East region and state championships. Grappling in the 171-pound slot, he finished the year undefeated and was rarely tested. Most of his victories were by falls, near falls or major decisions.
As a two-time defending state champion, Lee has been the top dog in his weight division since he was a freshman. During his three-year stint on the Rim Country Middle School wrestling team, he dominated the White Mountain League which contains most of the 3A East region schools.
Like Lee, Wilbanks had run out of quality opponents in the 3A conference.
On his way to a 44-1 record last season, he was the dominate wrestler in his weight class. During his sophomore season, while wrestling in the 135-pound division, he compiled 35-5 credentials and was a state runner-up. His freshman season, he earned a varsity letter competing as a 112-pounder.
When the Longhorns made their season debut Dec. 10 in a three-way match vs. Class 3A Show Low and Blue Ridge, both Lee and Wilbanks continued to dominate.
Against a Show Low foe, Lee built a 12-2 lead before winning by a fall. In the Blue Ridge match, Lee's move to the 189-pound class from 171 proved to be no problem. With 1:58 remaining in the first period, he chalked up a victory by a pin.
Wilbanks was equally impressive, winning both his matches by falls in the first periods.
The victories over defending state champion Show Low and longtime East rival Blue Ridge were further proof the 3A conference might not have wrestlers capable of competing with either Lee or Wilbanks.
What's up in 4A?
Whether the 4A conference harbors quality wrestlers in either the 160- or 171-pound divisions to compete with the Payson pair won't be completely answered until the state tournament, Feb. 13 and 14 at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
Wilbanks won his weight class against some of the best big-school opponents in the state at the Mesa Westwood Warrior Classic, Dec. 12-13. Wilbanks was named to the all-tournament team. He attributes his and Lee's success to the long-standing tradition and aura of the heralded Longhorn wrestling program.
"For as long as I can remember, there's always been state champs in the wrestling room, like R.C. LaHaye, for us to look up to," he said. "It's kind of like we're expected to be a champion."
He also credits part of his mat success to his lanky 6-foot, 2-inch frame that makes him doubly tough for opponents to get a grip on.
"I'm kind of long for my weight," he said. "That helps me get out of some holds."
Lee, Wilbanks and the remainder of the wrestling team will have the opportunity to test their mettle against 4A and 5A opponents Jan. 2 and 3 at the Mingus Invitational in Cottonwood. Host Mingus is among the teams expected to give Payson plenty of competition. Since both the Marauders and Longhorns are members of the Grand Canyon region, the invitational also will give the PHS coaching staff and wrestlers the opportunity to preview their foes before the region finals are held Feb. 6 and 7 in Mingus.