Payson Coach Honored For Lifetime Of Service

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The man who turned Payson into the "Small Town Wrestling Capital of America" will be among five retired coaches inducted into the Arizona State Chapter Hall of Fame for Lifetime Service to Wrestling.

Dennis Pirch will be honored Nov. 13 at a reception at the Sheraton Phoenix Airport Hotel in Phoenix.

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Former wrestling coach Dennis Pirch built the Payson High School program into one of the best in the country.

Pirch -- now a semi-retired teacher, business owner, Payson Roundup outdoors columnist and grandfather -- founded the Longhorn wrestling program in 1973.

Two years earlier, he graduated from Northern Arizona University where he was a team co-captain, Outstanding Senior Award winner and an All-Big Sky selection.

During a 28-year coaching career, Pirch led the Longhorns to 10 state championships, 23 regional titles, 100-plus tournament championships and a top-20 national ranking.

In compiling a dual meet record of 378 and 44, he was a 20-time region coach of the year winner, 10-time 3A state coach of the year and was selected All-Arizona coach of the year twice.

In 1997, he was chosen Region 8 and National Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Four years later, USA Wrestling Magazine tapped him Arizona Man of the Year.

More than Ws

As successful a coach as Pirch was, the 28 years he spent at the helm of the Longhorn wrestling program weren't just about winning.

He maintained a long-standing philosophy that wrestling was an arena where young people could nurture the values so important in today's society. Those values, he often said, were integrity, self-reliance, responsibility and a strong work ethic.

In the 1998-99 Payson Wrestling handbook, Pirch wrote that participation in Longhorn wrestling would "enable each person to not only be a winner and a champion on the mat, but also, after he leaves, to be a champion throughout his life."

The former coach never wavered in his belief that youngsters who committed themselves to the program would eventually succeed.

"Those who stay will be champions," read a plaque that hung in the PHS wrestling room for many years.

Among the former wrestlers who thrived in the program are R.C. LaHaye and Eric Anderson.

LaHaye, now an investment planner in Phoenix, said that Pirch taught him as much about life as wrestling.

"Some of the most important things he taught us were about being good citizens and good students. It wasn't always about sports. That's why I respect him so much," LaHaye said.

Following his graduation from Payson High, LaHaye went on to become an All-American wrestler at Western State College in Colorado.

Anderson, a former state champion, turned Payson dentist, said as he looks back on his wrestling career, 1984 to 1988, he realizes Pirch "was one of those coaches whose greatest concern was to create character in young men."

"He also helped young men achieve more than they ever thought possible," Anderson said.

The early years

In the fall of 1973, after teaching a year at PHS, Pirch was on the verge of leaving Payson for a football coaching and teaching job in the Valley.

However, former PHS athletic director and principal Tom Meck intervened and offered Pirch the opportunity to found a Longhorn wrestling program if he would remain at Payson High.

With the offer, Pirch and his wife Kathy decided to stay in Payson.

In the summer and fall of 1973, he scoured the tiny town searching for teenagers interested in wrestling.

At first, he didn't find many takers -- only about 12 students showed up for tryouts and some of those didn't make it through the inaugural season.

Realizing the future of the sport hinged on the interest generated among the younger athletes, Pirch, assisted by his wife and Chuck Crabdree, went about founding a youth wrestling program for elementary and junior high school students.

The youth program eventually became one of the best in the state and was widely acknowledged as the foundation of the high school team's 28 years of overwhelming success.

But the team's unbridled achievements through the years didn't make the sport any more attractive to teenagers struggling to find their identity.

During the last years of Pirch's tenure, while Payson High was stringing together five consecutive regional and state championships, Pirch and his staff were forced to continue to sell the values of the sport to reluctant freshmen and transfers.

"Encouraging young people to participate was ongoing," Pirch said after his retirement from coaching in 2001. "Being successful didn't change the program as much as you might think."

Building a legacy

In the early years of the program, Pirch and assistant Bruce Sitko handled most of the coaching chores while Kathy worked behind the scenes.

Later, the Longhorn program managed to lure a topnotch staff that became the envy of the state.

Don Heizer and Dave LaMotte, once "coaches of the year" at their former schools, came to Payson High with seasons of head coaching experience. Doug Eckhardt, a former Longhorn star who learned the nuances of the sport under Pirch, also joined the staff.

Today, Eckhardt is a Rim Country Middle School football and wrestling coach and continues to help build the Longhorn legacy by tutoring fledgling athletes in the fundamentals of sports.

Eckhardt has said his success with younger athletes can be attributed to teaching the same values he learned from Pirch.

Heizer remains with the program today and is a candidate for the National High School Assistant Wrestling Coach of the Year.

"What a great group it was to work with," Pirch said following his retirement.

Last spring, Pirch made the decision to partially retire from his social studies teaching position at Payson High School.

He now teaches three morning classes and spends the afternoons helping run the Tackle Box fishing supply store in Tonto Basin, which he co-owns.

He also pens the highly popular "Outdoors Under the Rim" column that appears weekly in the Payson Roundup.

A spiritual man with strong convictions, Pirch often wraps up his column with "Go out and enjoy God's creation."

The Pirches' two sons, Clifford and Christopher, forged highly successful three-sport athletic careers at Payson High School.

Clifford, now a professional bass angler and guide, is married to Alicia and they have two daughters, Kailee Grace and Kassidy Joy.

Christopher, a high school teacher and wrestling coach on the East Coast, is married to Katie.

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