Wilbanks Making Payson Proud

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The headline in a Gunnison, Colo. newspaper read, "Wilbanks leads Western at West Regional Championships."

The wrestler named is indeed former Payson High School state champion Larry Wilbanks, now a redshirt freshman on the Western State College Mountaineer mat team.

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Larry Wilbanks hugs his high school coach, Dave LaMotte, after the former PHS wrestling star won collegiate Freshman of the Year honors.

In the NCAA Division II championships held Feb. 25 and 26 in Gunnison, Wilbanks was the lone Mountaineer wrestler to win a weight class championship. Battling in the 165-pound division, Wilbanks grappled to a 13-1 major division over Fort Hays State University wrestler Phil Hart in the championship round.

For his exploits, Wilbanks was named the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.

With the win, Wilbanks is one of seven Mountaineer wrestlers to qualify for the NCAA Division II championships to be held March 10 and 11. Wilbanks' showing also helped Western State finish fourth in the West Regional championships.

Also for Western State, former Longhorn wrestling star Zach Lee (157 pounds) advanced to the championship round but was defeated. Lee will represent the Mountaineers in the national tournament.

Former Horn a battler

Longhorn fans will remember Wilbanks' ascension to a Western State wrestling scholarship as a tale of a dedicated teen who considered the wrestling mat a second home.

As a 160-pound senior in 2004, he won the Grand Canyon region weight class title, the Class 4A state championship and finished with an impressive 52-0 mark. At the conclusion of the year, he was selected to participate in the Arizona Coaches Association Red vs. Blue All-Star match. His opponent was Class 5A weight class champ Alex Pavlenco of Tempe.

The highly acclaimed Pavlenco, who was undefeated and the recipient of an Arizona State University scholarship, was the more heralded of the two.

In the practice days leading up to the clash, Wilbanks refused to be impressed by the big city media attention and the favorite role directed Pavlenco's way.

Some Valley-area fans touted Pavlenco as a much more superior wrestler than the Payson star.

What occurred at the all-star match was the stuff of which legends are made.

With the score deadlocked 1-1 and less than two seconds on the clock, Wilbanks perfectly executed a shoot move and a take down to earn two match winning points.

With the 3-1 victory, Wilbanks walked off the mat armed with bragging rights as the finest 160-pound wrestler in Arizona.

Weeks later, he traveled to Cleveland, Ohio for the Senior National Championships. Although he wrestled well, Wilbanks dropped two very close decisions.

As a 160-pound junior, Wilbanks finished 44-1 and won both the East region and 3A conference championships. His one loss was a 4-3 decision in double overtime to a Tempe High grappler.

During Wilbanks' sophomore year he compiled a 38-8 mark in the 135-pound division. He also won the East region crown and was a state runner-up.

As a skinny 112-pound freshman, Wilbanks claimed the East championship and battled to sixth place at the state tournament.

Another ex-Horn at Western

As a senior at PHS in 2003, Zach Lee (152 pounds) was named to the All-Arizona Wrestling team, which included athletes from all schools, sizes 1A to 5A.

He was only Class 3A athlete chosen to the all-star team -- a team that is traditionally dominated by athletes from "big schools" in Phoenix and Tucson.

During his stellar four-year career at PHS, Lee compiled a 151-10 record, was a three-time state champion and widely acknowledged as one of the finest wrestlers to come out of the storied Longhorn program.

In the summer of 2003 in Casa Grande, Lee participated in his final high school match as a member of the Arizona Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star team. Participating on the Red Star squad, Lee chalked up a 16-3 major decision over Morenci's Chad Cordell.

Following that win, Lee accepted a wrestling scholarship at Western State.

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