Refusing to be swayed by the Show Low Cougars No. 1 state ranking, the Payson Longhorns wrestled their way to East regular season and tournament championships.
The tournament title was earned Feb. 8 in Show Low where Payson accumulated 215 points to easily outdistance the runner-up Cougars (190). A week earlier, Payson claimed the regular-season crown with an undefeated (4-0) record.
Show Low entered the season-ending tournament No. 1 ranked and the defending East region and 3A state champs.
Underdog Payson relied on superior roster depth to pull off the upset in Cougar land. In 13 of the 14 prep weight divisions, Payson produced top-four finishers. That means Payson will be well represented at the state tournament when it tips-off today at Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
To earn a berth in the state tournament, wrestlers must finish among the top four in their individual weight classes at each of the four Class 3A regional tournaments --North, South, East and West.
The only weight class the Longhorns will not be represented in at state is heavyweight.
By virtue of region weight class championships, Matt McCarty (140), Zach Lee (152), Larry Wilbanks (160) and George Coleman (215) will take No. 1 seeds to state.
The Lee brothers also take with them unblemished records. Zach, a senior, sports a 43-0 mark and is a two-time state champion. Nate, a sophomore defending state champion is 44-0. Both are heavy favorites to win individual state titles.
Wilbanks advances to state with a 39-1 record and first-place finishes in the Westwood Warrior Kick Off Classic, Rim Country Duals, Mingus Invitational and the Tim Van Horn Memorial Tournament.
McCarty has strung together an impressive 40-4 record this year. In 2001-02, he was first in the region and fifth at state. Coleman is 39-4 and a defending region and state runner-up.
Payson might have produced a fifth East region champion had coaches allowed 189-pound Bryce River to wrestle in the championship match.
Because River has been sidelined most of the month with an injury that was not fully healed, coach Dave LaMotte and his staff opted to default in the final round. By opting for that philosophy, River had an extra week to heal before the state tournament rolls around.
"I wanted to wrestle, but (the coaches) know what's best," River said.
If Payson hadn't defaulted, River would have wrestled the top rated 189-pounder in the state -- Show Low's Anthony Perkins.
In two previous meetings between the pair, each won a bout by decision.
If the rivals lock horns in the state tournament, Perkins will be the favorite. But River, a senior, has proven throughout his career that he has the wherewithal to win big matches.
Earlier this season against Show Low, River was moved to the heavyweight division for the final bout of the evening. With the score deadknotted, River (31-5) pinned his opponent to give the Longhorns a hard fought victory and what ultimately turned into the regular season championship.
Other East silver medalists the Horns will send to state include Brad Wilembrecht (112) and Shane Hounshell (130). Both advanced to the region championship finals but were defeated. Wilembrecht (29-6) lost on a fall to a Blue Ridge foe that has been his nemesis all season. Hounshell (22-21) lost on a fall to No. 1 ranked Sean Seymore of Show Low.
PHS wrestlers taking East third-place seeds to state include Tyler Goodman (103), Lee Perez (125) Andy Sanders (135) and Josh Blalock (145). Goodman sports a 21-19 record; Perez is 21-24; Sanders is 10-31; and Blalock has a 10-17 record.
In earning state berths and top four East finishes, all were pleasant surprises for LaMotte and his staff. Throughout the campaign, the newcomers struggled to learn the techniques and nuances it requires to become a state-class athlete.
If the Longhorns can win the state championship, it would be the 11th such crown in the past 23 years.