Armed with a 4A conference No. 10 team ranking and a pair of wrestlers who could be awarded top weight-class seeds, the Payson High School Longhorns will begin pursuit of the Grand Canyon Region championship.
Mat action in the tournament begins at 11 a.m. Saturday in Wilson Dome. The consolation finals tip off at 5:30 p.m. and the championship round at 7 p.m.
Among the most telling events in the annual big show are the coaches seeding meeting early Saturday morning. In it, wrestlers are seeded into their weight class brackets according to their regional and overall season records.
Traditionally, wrestlers who draw the best seeds are among the most successful in the tournament.
The Longhorns have two wrestlers, Nate Lee and David Cluff, who could emerge from the meeting with advantageous No. 1 seeds.
In the 145-pound division, Cluff has a 7-0 GCR record and is 41-5 overall.
Lee's regional record of 4-0 and 46-0 overall mark is sure to earn him the 171-pound top seed.
In the 125-pound division, sophomore Porter Wilbanks probably won't receive a top berth mostly because he's been injured most of the season.
Early in the season, when he was competing in the 119-pound class, Wilbanks was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state.
Since achieving that lofty status, he has spent about a month rehabilitating an injured shoulder. Early this week, he was given the go-ahead by doctors to resume wrestling.
Another injury that has slowed the Horn team effort is the twisted knee suffered by freshman Mark McCarty. He was held out of the Tim Van Horn Memorial last month to allow the knee time to heal.
According to assistant coach Don Heizer, McCarty has been cleared to resume practice but his status is day-to-day.
"We'll evaluate him and make a decision later this week," Heizer said.
Other top contenders
Other PHS wrestlers who could be in contention for top-six seeds include Tyler Goodman (119), Brandon Chovanec (130), Lee Perez (135), Zack Rodgers (152), Shane Hounshell (160), and Donnie Engler (215).
Engler is also among the Longhorns' walking wounded having suffered a knee injury early in the year. Wearing a brace, he has returned to the lineup.
In the battle for the GCR team championship, 4A No. 6 ranked Mingus and the Longhorns appear to be on a collision course for the title.
Mingus proved it might have a slight edge over the Horns at the Marauder Invitational Jan. 7 and 8 in Cottonwood.
There, the Marauders four wins by falls fueled the team to a 36-21 win over Payson. The only Longhorn wrestlers to emerge victorious in the heated showdown were Perez, McCarty, Rodgers and Nate Lee.
Although Mingus and Payson are generally regarded the class of the Grand Canyon schools, there are plenty of other quality teams in the region.
"Last year, (Grand Canyon) teams finished third, fourth, fifth, seventh and 12th at state," Heizer said. "It is the toughest region in the state by far."
The problem with competing in such a quality region, Heizer said, is that in the regional tournament "we butcher everybody up for the state tournament."
He said that with the competition so keen, it's tough for Grand Canyon teams to qualify a large number of wrestlers for the state championships.
Only the top-three finishers in the 4A regions earn berths to state.
Last season, Payson qualified just six wrestlers for state and had to settle for a fourth-place 4A finish.
In a southern Arizona region where competition is not as tough, Tucson Pueblo and Tucson Sunnyside are able to send a much larger group of wrestlers to state.
"Those two schools can usually qualify 13 to 14 wrestlers," Heizer said. "Sometimes they qualify everybody, which makes it tough on Grand Canyon teams.
"The more you qualify, the better chance at state," he said.
The 4A state tournament begins Feb. 10 at Boulder Creek High School in Anthem. Action then moves to Glendale Arena Feb. 11 and 12.
The inaugural event at the arena, which also includes basketball and spirit line championships, has been dubbed "February Frenzy."