The Longhorn wrestling team will take a Class 4A Grand Canyon region regular season first-place finish into all-important postseason play.
The Horns (5-1 in the region) open pursuit of Grand Canyon honors Feb. 6 and 7 and the regional tournament at Flagstaff Coconino. Individual first- through third-place weight class finishers there earn berths into the state tournament Feb. 13 and 14 and Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
During the regular season, Payson's only Grand Canyon loss was Jan. 21 to Page. That defeat was incurred in a regional multi-meet held at Mingus.
While the loss would seem to make Page as a top contender for the region tournament title, Horns' assistant wrestling coach Don Heizer says it ain't so.
"(The championship) is wide open," he said. "There are several teams who could win it. The Grand Canyon has the reputation as being the toughest region from top to bottom in the state."
Whichever team emerges from the regional battle in first place will face a tough task at state.
"In the Grand Canyon, teams beat themselves up at regionals and don't have much left for state," Heizer said.
The coach said that teams in the less competitive regions can easily qualify 12 or 13 wrestlers for state.
In the tough Grand Canyon tournament, teams might qualify only seven or eight individuals.
"It's tough to do well at state when you've left wrestlers at home who could score (state) points," Heizer said.
Senior Larry Wilbanks (160) and junior Nate Lee (171) are among the Longhorn wrestlers who advance to the regionals as favorites to win weight-class titles. Both are undefeated this season and have won weight division championships at the Westwood Warrior Classic, Mingus Invitational, Rim Country Duals and the Tim Van Horn Invitational.
Since both are defending Class 3A champions and among the best in the state, all eyes could be on the duo at the 4A title games.
Wilbanks and Lee are solid wrestlers, but it takes more than a pair of individual victories for a team to succeed in the postseason.
Others in the lineup will have to step up and produce team points. Porter Wilbanks, Tyler Goodman and Brad Wilembrecht are among those being counted on to earn state qualifying berths.
Porter, a 105-pound freshman with a 34-6 record, forged on to the state wrestling scene with his victory at the Tim Van Horn Invitational.
Wilembrecht also won a Van Horn title and has proven all season to be one of the best 121-pounders in the conference.
Goodman (114) only has a year of varsity experience, but his second-place finish at the Van Horn branded him a regional title threat.
Others expected to represent the Longhorns in the regionals are Brandon Chovanec (127), Lee Perez (132), David Cluff (137) and Zach Rodgers (142).
The real question for the Longhorns is in the 147- and 154-pound classes. At the Van Horn, Payson did not score a single team point in either division. If the Horns are to win a regional title, the team will need some type of representation in both classes.
Another key to a Payson victory lies with Donnie Engler (191) and Adam Munson (heavyweight). Engler finished fourth at the Van Horn, but has been hobbled by a high ankle sprain that has limited him to riding an exercise bike in recent practice sessions.
Munson is on the mend from a rib injury that kept him out of the Van Horn. The senior said late last week he expects to be almost at full strength for the regional showdown.