The Longhorn wrestling team competes Friday and Saturday with high hopes of ousting Gilbert Highland as the defending champion of the Tim Van Horn Memorial Invitational.
Joining Payson and Highland in the tournament will be 14 other schools from around the state.
The field --ncluding teams from the northern Arizona reservations, Tucson, small-town Arizona and metropolitan Phoenix -- could be one of the most diverse in recent Van Horn history.
The tournament also will draw a pair of 4A state-ranked teams -- Tempe (ninth) and Apache Junction (10th).
Tournament Director Don Heizer, a longtime PHS assistant coach, predicts the variety of quality teams on hand will turn the tournament into a highly competitive one.
"There are some good teams and very good wrestlers coming," he said.
Among the very best wrestlers entered in the annual fray is Payson's undefeated and state No. 1 ranked 171-pound Nate Lee.
The senior mat star has dominated his competition all season and is on track to becoming Payson High's first four-time state champion.
Only a handful of opponents who have drawn the unenviable task of taking on Lee have been able to go the full three periods against him. Most of his matches end with a pin.
In the championship round of the Mingus Invitational Jan. 8, Lee showcased his mat prowess posting a 22-9 technical fall victory over his Mesa Mountain View opponent.
With the victory, Lee claimed the tournament's 171-pound weight class championship.
Following graduation in the spring, he'll continue his wrestling career at Boise State University.
The only other Horn wrestler besides Lee to win a Mingus weight class crown was 137-pound Lee Perez.
Perez finished with an 8-1 record losing only a first-day dual to Marco de Niza's 5A state second-ranked Cory Felix.
On the second day of the tournament, Perez rebounded to thump Felix 3-1 on an escape and takedown in the third period.
With Lee and Perez in the Van Horn lineup, the Horns have a pair of the state's finest grapplers to call upon for leadership.
Others who could contend for weight-class crowns include Tyler Goodman (121), Brandon Chovanec (132) and David Cluff (147).
Some of the Horns most promising wrestlers, however, will be hobbled by nagging injuries.
Freshman Mark McCarty is battling a knee injury and sophomore Porter Wilbanks, a strong candidate to win the GCR 125-pound crown, was yanked from the Mingus tournament after aggravating a shoulder injury.
The status of the two for the Van Horn was uncertain at press time.
The Horns should have the services of 215-pound Donnie Engler who has been sidelined since early season with a knee injury. According to Heizer, Engler was cleared to resume practice early this week and should see action in the Van Horn.
"I'm glad to be back wrestling," Engler said.
The first session of the Van Horn --eam round robins --ill be from noon to 8 p.m. Friday on three mats in Wilson Dome.
The round robins will wrap up 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday also on three mats. Individual consolation finals will be from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on two mats. The championships are from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on one mat.
At the conclusion of the tournament, Heizer will award trophies to the top four teams and medals to the top four individuals in each weight class. Souvenir T-shirts also will be given to each weight-class champion.
Other awards include three outstanding wrestler citations (light, middle and heavyweights), a medallion for fastest fall of the tournament and a coach's sportsman award.
The tournament is conducted annually in memory of former PHS wrestling supporter Tim Van Horn who was killed in an out-of-state automobile accident almost 20 years ago.
No admission will be charged for any of the sessions.