Rich Ormand is among the handful of Payson High School coaches who didn't welcome with open arms the Longhorn return to the 3A conference after spending two years in the 4A ranks.
"I, personally, wished we had stayed in 4A. I liked the overall level of competition," he said. "I would have loved leading a team to a hopeful 4A state championship."
PHS school administrators petitioned the Arizona Interscholastic Association last year to change conference alignments, partly because PHS was the smallest school in 4A, with only six students over the 3A maximum of 949.
PHS is now the second-largest 3A school, trailing only Chinle, which has 1091 students.
As tough as winning a 4A state title was for a small school like Payson, life in 3A won't be a cakewalk.
"The 3A tournament is going to be no easier to win (than 4A)," Ormand said. "We might have more kids place in 3A than we would have in 4A, but winning it (the state championship) as a team is a different story."
The coach points to Show Low and Safford as among the best programs in the small school conference." Both return four state-placers and nine qualifiers overall," he said. "It will be tough to beat those two teams.
"And we can't count out other teams like Holbrook, Blue Ridge and Coolidge."
Ormand predicts a strong work ethic to be one of the keys to the Horns earning a state championship.
"It all boils down to who wants it more and who is working harder," he said. "We are working toward making the kids believe in their potential.
"If everyone performs to their potential and beyond, we may have a shot at winning it."
Another key to success Ormand points to is strong leadership from the returning veterans who have battled in state and regional mat wars.
Among them are Brandon Chovanec, David Cluff, Don Engler, Ty Goodman, Mark McCarty, Lee Perez, Zach Rodgers and Porter Wilbanks.
In that crew, Cluff, Engler and Perez might be the most logical leaders because they are seniors, seasoned by four years in the mat program.
Cluff, a defending Grand Canyon region champion, finished second at state losing a 10-9 decision to Tucson Sunnyside's Joey Crandall.
PHS fans, who watched Cluff run his heart out during the past cross country season, know the teen is a warrior determined to give the team cause his best effort.
Engler, also a GCR champion last season, was sixth in the 4A state tournament.
Like Cluff, Engler is a battler who has his sights set on success.
Perez was third in the state in 2004 and fifth in 2005.
"We have a good group of seniors," Ormand said. "We have delegated a little more responsibility to them this year and hope they will stay motivated all year long to lead this team to region and state honors."
In the returning crew of underclass letter-winners, Chovanec, Goodman, Rodgers and Wilbanks are all juniors. Chovanec and Rodgers were state qualifiers; Goodman and Wilbanks were fourth at state.
McCarty, a highly talented sophomore, qualified for state last year, but was hampered most of the season by injuries.
Other letter-winners being counted on to produce team points include Kyle Allen, Dan McGee, Matt Barr, Jordan Bucher, Issac Cluff, Troy Jenkins and Kyle Leonard.
Among the freshmen who might make the varsity roster are Taylor Byers, Oshay Chovanec, Steele Armstrong, Jeff Howard and Nick Goodman.
Ormand is uncertain how the newcomers will pan out, but says, "they are working hard, and a few will challenge for some varsity time."
The early grind
In preseason practices, the coaching staff has focused on improving skills, attitudes and conditioning.
"We are preaching to drill hard at all times and to be good workout partners," Ormand said. "One thing we want to do better this year is coming out from the bottom position with more authority and to be more aggressive in setting up our takedowns."
In the vernacular of former PHS coach Dennis Pirch, who founded the mat program, that strategy is called "in your face wrestling."
The longtime coach's mat philosophy is exactly what the wrestlers need when facing one of the most ambitious schedules in the 3A conference.
"There is going to be extremely fierce competition when we step on the mat," Ormand said. "We are looking forward to the region multiple (Dec. 7 in Wilson dome), Green Valley Duals (Dec. 2 and 3 in Henderson, Nev.), Peoria Invitational (Jan. 6 and 7), and the Tim Van Horn (Jan. 20 and 21 in Wilson dome)."
Although the regular season is important to coaches and wrestlers, it will be regional and state tournaments in early February that will be the highlights of the campaign.
"Nothing else matters if we do not perform well at region and state," Ormand said. "No one remembers the team that won everything all year long, but did not make it to state."
In prepping the wrestlers for the coming season, Ormand has a staff that includes assistants Kelly Owens, Arron Grey, R.C. LaHaye, Patrick Underwood and Don Heizer.
In addition to Heizer serving as an assistant, he will also be tournament director for the Rim Country Duals, Tim Van Horn Memorial and assistant tournament director for the state championships.
Heizer, who has been in the wrestling program for more than two decades, also has been honored as the 2005 Arizona State and Region 8 Assistant Wrestling Coach of the Year.
The Horns make their home debut Dec. 7 in a multiple meet in Wilson dome against Show Low, Blue Ridge and Snowflake.