With the state No. 1 ranked Show Low Cougars and second-rated Payson locked in a 34-34 tie, senior Bryce River took to the SLHS wrestling mat on Jan. 8 knowing the fate of the Longhorns rested on his shoulders.
"That was a lot of pressure, I knew I had to win," River said.
Responding like the seasoned mat veteran he is, River quickly chalked up a take-down to jump out to a two-point lead over Show Low heavyweight Stetson Tenney. Moments later, after Tenney tried to execute a head lock, River responded with footwork that left Tenney floundering on his back.
"I rolled through the head lock and put a half (Nelson) on him," River said.
Before the raucous home crowd of Show Low fans could cut loose with a Cougar growl, River was polishing the final touches of a pin. His clutch six-point win by a fall lifted the underdog Longhorns to a 40-34 victory. Payson's triumph also left Cat backers wondering if this edition of the Show Low mat crew has the manpower to repeat as Class 3A state champions.
The Longhorn victory will most likely result in Payson replacing the Cougars as the No. 1 team in the state when rankings are compiled later this week.
The Horns might not have been able to salvage the stirring come-from-behind victory in Show Low had it not been for coach Dave LaMotte's shrewd strategy.
Following Nathan Lee's win by a fall in the 171-pound battle, Payson assumed a 31-28 lead. Only five matches earlier, at the end of the 135-pound clash in which Shane Hounshell lost a 12-1 major decision, Show Low was enjoying a 22-9 cushion.
Trailing by 13 points was not totally unexpected.
"Because (the match) started at 103 (pounds), we thought we'd be down about that many points and would have to rely on our bigger kids," LaMotte said.
After Nate Lee's victory, only three individual matches remained in the East region showdown -- 189, 215, and heavyweight. To return to the Rim country with a win, LaMotte knew he'd have to make some last-minute roster changes. He opted to insert freshman Don Engler into the 189-pound class that River has held down most of the early season.
Although Engler lost by a fall, LaMotte had his two best big men -- George Coleman and River -- available to wrestle the final two matches.
With the Horns trailing 34-31, Coleman (215) battled his way to a 5-1 win over defending state 189-pound runner-up Anthon Perkins.
Earlier in the match, the Show Low coaching staff had scratched Perkins from his traditional 189-slot to move him to the 215 division. Apparently, Cougar coaches believed Perkins had a better chance of beating Coleman than their usual 215-pound starter.
Coleman responded to the challenge with a take down in the first period and an escape and take down in the second. The only points Coleman allowed Perkins was an escape late in the match.
Coleman's crucial win tied the score and set the stage for River's dramatic heroics.
Although River weighed in at only 195 pounds for the 275-pound heavyweight division, LaMotte knew he was capable of holding his own against bigger foes.
Most of the early season newcomer Sammy Perez, a sophomore, has held down the heavyweight slot for the Longhorns.
River, who hails from a wrestling family, has competed in the sport since he was an elementary school student.
The making of a win
Payson's triumphant effort in the White Mountains received help from the entire Longhorn lineup.
Freshman Tyler Goodman (103 pounds) got the Horns out to a 3-0 lead by winning 20-14.
Brad Wilembrecht, who was recovering from injuries suffered in a Christmas day automobile accident, gave the Horns a 9-6 lead by claiming the 119-pound class on a fall.
After Payson had lost three consecutive matches, Matt McCarty railroaded the Longhorn express back on track with a first-period fall in the 140-pound competition.
In the 152-pound division, senior Zach Lee won a 14-1 major decision to extend his streak to 74 consecutive matches.
Following Zach's win, 160-pound Larry Wilbanks (26-0) kept the Longhorns steaming towards victory with triumph by a fall.
The next challenge that awaits the Longhorns is the annual Tim Van Horn Memorial Tournament Jan. 17 and 18 in Wilson Dome. Tournament director Don Heizer expects eight topnotch teams from around the state to participate. Start times will be announced later this week.