The East's regular season championship banner will be hoisted by the state second-ranked Longhorn wrestling team when the region tournament kicks off Feb. 8 in Show Low.
The Horns nailed down the first-place finish Jan. 29 in Wilson Dome by whipping Blue Ridge, 48-30 and Snowflake 63-12. During the rare five-way meet, Payson also thumped Estrella Foothills 81-0 and Holbrook 52-24.
Originally, Payson was to have hosted Snowflake and Estrella Dec. 18. That bout, however, was cancelled when snow and inclement weather made traveling Rim country roads too hazardous for school buses.
With the postponement, Snowflake and Estrella officials agreed to hold a make-up clash Wednesday. The day was originally to be a three-way affair involving Blue Ridge, Holbrook and Payson.
Because five teams were involved, PHS athletic director Dave Bradley moved the meet start time to 1 p.m. and conducted it on two mats in the dome.
The victories over the Lobos and Yellow Jackets were icing on a cake that was first stirred Jan. 8 in Show Low. There, the Horns beat the defending regional and state champion Cougars 40-34.
The classic match between the top-ranked cats and Payson was decided in the final match when senior Bryce River pinned Show Low's Stetson Tenney.
Following that nail-biting win, Payson has been almost a lock to coast to the regular season title.
Stinging the Jackets; taming the Lobos
In whipping Blue Ridge, the Horns rallied from a 24-18 deficit to win five of the final six bouts.
The rally began in the 152-pound match, when Zach Lee won by a pin. That victory was followed by additional pins from Larry Wilbanks (160), Nate Lee (171) and River (189). After George Coleman (215) was awarded a forfeit victory, Payson lost the 275-pound clash by a fall.
The match marked the return of River and Wilbanks to the Longhorn lineup. Both were held out of a Jan. 28 match in Tucson due to injuries.
Although River competed against Blue Ridge and Snowflake and picked up a forfeit against Estrella, he was held out of the Holbrook match.
When he wasn't on the mat competing, River was in the training room receiving treatment for a bruised sternum he suffered Jan. 18 in the Tim Van Horn Invitational. River said he is still slowed by the injury, but hopes to return to full form by the time the regional tournament rolls around.
Wilbanks, who suffered a pulled muscle, appeared to be in top form winning four matches -- two on falls, another on a 16-1 technical fall and by forfeit against Estrella.
It wasn't many years ago that the Payson vs. Snowflake bout was a much-anticipated, hard-fought conflict that usually decided the East championship.
This season, however, Snowflake has fallen on hard times and is simply no match for the talented Longhorns.
The only points Snowflake could muster against Payson came in the 125- and 275-pound matches. The Lobos won both by pins.
Payson was led by victories on falls from Tyler Goodman (103), Brad Wilembrecht (112), Shane Hounshell (130), Nate Lee (171) and River (189). Longhorns David Cluff, Zach Lee and Coleman were awarded forfeit victories.
The most exciting match of the afternoon turned out to be the 140-pound event that matched Payson's Matt McCarty against Lobo Garrett Mortenson.
After taking a 7-1 lead in the first period, McCarty -- who was the East 140-pound champ last season -- appeared to be on his way to an easy triumph. However, in the second period, Mortenson closed the gap to 8-3 and trailed only 8-6 when time ran out. McCarty's two takedowns and a near fall in the first period eventually proved to be the winning points.
Roadrunners take lead then falter
Like most of Payson bouts this season, the Longhorns fell behind early and then rallied for a win thanks to a talented lineup from 140 to 215-pounds.
At the conclusion of the 130-pound match, Payson trailed 18-4 and didn't appear to have the wherewithal to stage another rally.
With every Roadrunner win, Holbrook's highly vocal and animated coach urged his charges to pull off an upset over the Longhorns. The Roadrunners entered the match as the state's fourth-ranked 3A team.
The Longhorns rally began in the 135-pound match when freshman Andy Sanders pinned his Roadrunner foe in the third period
Payson continued to chalk up points on pins from McCarty (140), Josh Blalock (145), Zack Lee (152), Wilbanks (160) and Nate Lee (171).
In only six matches, the Horns erased a 14-point deficit to lead by 22.
Heavyweight Sammy Perez capped the Longhorn run by pinning his Holbrook opponent in the second period.
Against a depleted Estrella lineup, the Horns received nine victories by falls. Because Estrella is a new school with only freshmen and sophomore classes, the team doesn't yet have a full stable of athletes.
Only Cluff (119), Lee Perez (125), Sanders (135), McCarty (140) and Blalock (145) had matches against Estrella.