Longhorn wrestling coach Rich Ormand is predicting the road to a second successive Grand Canyon Region championship could be rougher than last season.
"It's going to be tough to achieve our goal of defending," he said. "The teams we'll have to beat are Mingus, Coconino, Page and Chinle."
All those schools are expected to churn out quality wrestling teams as they did in 2003-2004 when the Grand Canyon region was widely considered the most competitive in the 4A conference. At the conclusion of the season, the region had five schools ranked in the top 10 -- Payson (3), Coconino (5), Mingus (6), Page (7) and Chinle (8).
The coach said this year's campaign could be a repeat of last year.
"Just like last season, it will be a five-way battle for the region title," Ormand said.
The key to any success the Horns might enjoy could rest on the shoulders of the younger, inexperienced wrestlers.
"If we expect to do well, some of the kids that did not qualify for state (last year) will have to step it up," Ormand said.
Among those key rookies are Chris Bilyk, 114 or 119 pounds; Jordan Bucher, 119 or 125; and Alex Winchester, 215 or 275. All were members of last season's junior varsity team.
Also for the Horns, Andy Sanders, 145 or 152, and Josh Blalock, 152 or 160, have returned to the team after lettering in the 2002-2003 season, but sitting out last year. Both are stellar athletes who could make valuable contributions if they can shake off the rust of a year out of the sport.
If there is a shining star in the Longhorns' future, it's freshman Mark McCarty, 140 or 145. Although he's only a first-year prep wrestler, he brings tremendous energy and talent to the team having been a junior high school state champion last season.
Since he was in elementary school, McCarty has competed almost year-round on the USA wrestling circuit and is considered one of the state's most promising young wrestlers. As an eighth-grader, McCarty said his goal was to be a state champion and someday earn a collegiate scholarship.
As an added bonus, McCarty can serve as an algebra and geometry tutor for other team members. McCarty is a 4.00 student who took almost all the advanced math classes Payson High School offers when he was at Rim Country Middle School.
As important as the newcomers, returnees and the freshmen are to the mat program, it's the veterans who will be counted on to provide the leadership every team needs to be successful.
The Horns have a solid nucleus including senior Nate Lee, 160 or 171, who will be attempting to become Payson High's first-ever four-time state champion.
"That's my goal," he said.
With Lee in the lineup, the Horns are almost guaranteed a weight class win, and usually by a fall.
Also returning are a pair of grapplers -- Porter Wilbanks, 103, and Lee Perez, 130 -- who will be out to defend their region weight class championships of last season.
At the 2003-2004 regional championships, Wilbanks, then a freshmen, finished 2-0 winning on a technical fall, and by a major decision. Perez was 2-0 chalking up two pins.
Junior Donnie Engler, 189, earned a berth to state last season with his 2-1 record and third-place showing in the region finals. Engler won by an injury default in the opening round, but lost by a pin in the semifinals. In the consolation bracket finals, he won by a fall.
Other returning letter winners included Chad Breen, 189-215; Brandon Chovanc, 130; David Cluff, 145 or 152; Tyler Goodman, 114, 119 or 125; Shane Hounshel, 152 or 160; Troy Jenkins, 125 or 130; Lee Perez, 135 or 140; Sammy Perez, 215 or 275; and Zack Rodgers, 140 or 145.
If the Horns can win a second regional title, the team's goal is to then improve upon its fourth place finish of last season.
"We always strive for another state championship," Ormand said.
To become a state contender, the Horns will have to find ways to pile up more points than some of the best 4A teams in the state including Sunnyside, Pueblo, Thunderbird, Moon Valley, Mohave, Prescott and Ironwood Ridge.
The Horns open the season at 1 p.m. Dec. 8 in Wilson Dome against Chinle, Blue Ridge and Show Low. The Horns stiffest test of the early season could come Dec. 10 and 11 at the Warrior Classic at Mesa Westwood High School.