Rising to the challenge, much like a Phoenix reborn from its own ashes, the Longhorn wrestling team put together one of its finest all-around efforts in recent years to win the Grand Canyon Region championship.
Leading the charge -- Feb. 5 in Wilson dome --o restore the Longhorns to their perch at the top of state wrestling circles, was junior Donnie Engler.
The teen, known for his quiet demeanor and rock solid perseverance, battled a knee injury all season long that would have sidelined most athletes for the year. Engler, however, continued to train for the day he would be able to return to the mat. Saturday evening in front of his admiring parents, teammates, coaches and fans, he stood tall at the center of the mat with his arm raised high in a stirring victory gesture.
He captured the 215-pound weight class championship by defeating Coconino's Tucker Schmidt, 9-5, in the champion finale.
As impassioned as Engler's march to the victory stand was, it wasn't the only stout-hearted effort the Horns received.
Another was turned in by junior David Cluff in the 145-pound weight battles.
After beginning the season as a relative unknown in state wrestling, Cluff has molded himself into one of Arizona's finest by winning the GCR weight class championship.
In the gold medal round, Cluff wrestled his way to a 10-1 victory over Mingus' Jon Bodam. Cluff's overall win-loss record now stands at an impressive 43-5.
The Longhorns' third GCR gold medal was garnered by senior Nate Lee in the 171-pound class. In defeating Sinagua's Braun Stapley 19-7 in the final round, Lee improved to 48-0 and stayed on track toward becoming Payson High School's first four-time state champion.
Following his graduation with the class of 2005, Lee will take his mat act to Boise State University. Last fall, BSU coaches offered him a wrestling scholarship which he quickly accepted.
The efforts of Engler, Cluff and Lee propelled the Longhorns to their second successive Grand Canyon Region championship. Payson finished with 199.5 points. Mingus was second with 192, followed by Coconino (117), Flagstaff (110), and Chinle (87).
In winning the title, the Longhorns also received stellar showings from 10 team members who wrestled their way to GCR top-three medal finishers.
The silver medalists included Tyler Goodman (119), Porter Wilbanks (125), Lee Perez (135), Zach Rodgers (152) and Shaun Hounshell (160).
Bronze medalists were Zach Petty (103), Brandon Chovanec (130), Mark McCarty (140), Chad Breen (189) and Sammy Perez (heavyweight).
The only weight class in which Payson had no top-three finisher was 112 pounds.
The tournament victory in Wilson dome set off the most unusual of victory celebrations.
Living up to an agreement the coaches had made with team members in the days leading up to the tournament, wrestlers were allowed to sheer the coaches' hair in whatever fashion they deemed appropriate.
Head coach Rich Ormand received a mullet, assistant Kelly Owens is now sporting a mohawk and Don Heizer has a design, which no one can identify, inscribed in his hair.
"I asked the wrestlers what it was and they didn't know," he said.
Glendale, Anthem host state clashes
The Longhorn wrestling team's 13 state tournament qualifiers opened pursuit of Class 4A honors yesterday at newly built Boulder Creek High School in Anthem.
Survivors of first-round action there will advance to the quarter and semifinal rounds to be held today (Friday) at Glendale Arena. The state championships wrap up with gold medal rounds Saturday, also in Glendale.
The state tournament is being held for the first time in the arena that is the home of the Phoenix Coyotes professional hockey team. Previously, state championships were held at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
Last fall, Glendale officials were able to convince the Arizona Interscholastic Association to move the basketball, wrestling and spirit line state championships to the arena. The inaugural event has been dubbed "February Frenzy."
In the future, when the Arizona Cardinals stadium is completed, Glendale could play host to all state championship events, including football.
Payson's pursuit of a state championship will be led by a trio of Grand Canyon Region weight class champions -- David Cluff (145), Nate Lee (171) and Donnie Engler (215).
Cluff has drawn a No. 1 seed and received a bye in the first round.
Lee is also a No. 1 seed and will take on Lake Havasu's Nic Immel in the first round. Immel enters as a 32nd seed with a record of 11-7.
Engler took a No. 6 seed to the tournament with a 12-5 mark, but received a bye in the opening round. In the second round, he'll take on the winner of a match pitting Bradshaw Mountain's Matt Thompson (21-10) against Jesus Carranza (13-1) of San Luis.