It's showtime for the Payson Longhorn wrestling team.
The curtain is drawn and the drama unfolds tomorrow morning at Show Low High School, where the five East region teams gather for the day-long season-ending regional tournament.
Individual wrestlers who finish among the top four of their weight divisions will earn berths into the state tournament, Feb. 14 and 15 at Phoenix Memorial Coliseum.
The better a wrestler finishes in the regular tournament, the better his seed will be into the state showdown. Also, the Horns' chances for a state championship improve with each wrestler the team qualifies for the tournament.
Payson advances to tomorrow's finale as the regular season regional champion with a 4-0 record.
One of those wins was a 40-34 squeaker Jan. 8 over defending regional and state champion Show Low.
If that meeting was any indication of what the regional tournament will be, fans are in for the mother of all mat wars.
The Longhorns take to the regional final a stable of six talented wrestling veterans, all with state experience, who have proven to be among Arizona's best.
Also being counted on to provide valuable team points are eight promising youngsters who only need seasoning and training to attain regional and state success.
The veterans include Matt McCarty (140), Zach Lee (152), Larry Wilbanks (160), Nate Lee (171), Bryce River (189) and George Coleman (215). All are favorites to wrestle their way to East weight-class championships.
Last season, McCarty, Zach Lee, Wilbanks and Nate Lee won East crowns. River and Coleman were region runners-up.
The Lee brothers are unbeaten this season and might be considered sure locks to nail down region crowns.
The statewide wrestling newsletter "The Arizona Trip" ranks McCarty (38-4), Zach Lee (41-0), Wilbanks (37-1), Nate Lee (42-0) and Coleman (37-4) the No. 1 wrestlers in their weight classes. River (30-4) is ranked fifth.
Although River and Wilbanks have been sidelined by injuries, both are expected to be at almost full strength for the tournament.
After missing a Tucson match Jan. 25, Wilbanks was back in the lineup for a four-way meet Jan. 29.
River also missed the Tucson bout and was still suffering the after-effects of a bruised sternum at the Jan. 29 match. At the bout, he was receiving treatment from school nurse Dani Hatch after admitting he was still in pain.
The Horn lineup boasts another wrestler with considerable experience -- 112-pound Brad Wilembrecht (28-5).
Last year, he finished third at regionals and qualified for the state tournament. Only days after the East tournament, he suffered a locker room accident and could not wrestle at state.
The key for Wilembrecht to take a top four finish at regionals might be to find a way to beat a Blue Ridge foe who beat him 6-3 last week. The good news for Wilembrecht is that most of the top-rated wrestlers in his weight class represent the North, West and South regions.
For the Longhorns to win the East title, the team also will need points from the seven mostly untested wrestlers in the lineup. They include Tyler Goodman (103; 20-18), David Cluff (119; 13-25), Lee Perez (125; 19-23), Shane Hounshell (130; 21-20), Andy Sanders (135; 8-30), Josh Blalock (145; 9-16), and Sammy Perez (275; 10-27). Donald Engler, the team's 189-pound freshman, also might see action in the regional showdown.
Although most in the crew lack regional and state experience, they have been with the team since the season opened Dec. 6 at the Mesa Warrior Kick-Off Classic.