This season's Longhorn mat effort will be led by a new, but well-known, coach and four returning state placers.
The coach, Dave LaMotte, replaces Rich Ormand who resigned last season after leading the Longhorns to a state second place finish.
The returning state placers include Porter Wilbanks, Mark McCarty, Zach Rodgers and Taylor Byers.
LaMotte is no stranger to the PHS wrestling program, having served as head coach for two years before resigning in April 2003.
Prior to his resignation, which caught many by surprise, LaMotte was an assistant to Dennis Pirch who founded the program in 1973.
During his tenure at PHS, LaMotte coached many of the Longhorns' finest wrestlers, including Matt McCarty, R. C. LaHaye, George Coleman, Zach Lee, Larry Wilbanks and Nate Lee, who are now at Boise State University. Zach Lee and Wilbanks are starters on the Western State College of Colorado wrestling team.
LaHaye, a former All-American at Western State, has returned to PHS to serve as an assistant to LaMotte.
Before LaMotte resigned in 2003, he guided the Longhorns to an East region championship and a state runner-up showing. A year prior, in his first season at the helm of the program, the Horns finished as regional and state runners-up. Prior to his arrival in Payson, LaMotte was head coach at Gilbert High School.
At his Western Liberty State alma mater, LaMotte was a collegiate All-American who grew up idolizing current Iowa State and former Arizona State coach Bobby Douglas, then an Olympic wrestling hero.
After agreeing to return to PHS last spring, LaMotte said the years away from wrestling had convinced him he is ready "to continue to build on the tradition of excellence."
Wilbanks returns to the lineup as the defending Class 3A State champion in the 140-pound class. This season, he is expected to battle in the 145-pound division.
Last year as a junior, he strung together a 43-5 mark that included a stirring 8-3 victory over Blue Ridge's Billy Rova in the state championship finale.
Wilbanks entered the state tournament as the East region weight class champion.
With three years of prep experience now buoying him, Wilbanks is projected to be one of the finest wrestlers in the state regardless of school size classification.
McCarty is also being hailed as one of Arizona's premier wrestlers if he can overcome the injury bug that slowed him last season when he finished 31-10 and third in the state in the 145-pound division.
During the state tournament, McCarty put on one of the gutsiest performances ever turned in by a PHS wrestler. After losing a major decision in the second round, he returned to the mat with a vengeance going a four-match-winning streak that earned him the East bronze.
LaMotte said he expects McCarty to this season wrestle in the 152-pound class.
Byers, a returning state fifth place finisher in the 103-pound division, could move up to the highly competitive 125-pound division.
The invaluable experience he picked up last year as a freshman includes compiling a 45-11 record and a 3-2 mark at state.
During the 2005-2006 state showdowns, Byers -- an East three-seed -- had a rough row to hoe facing both the South and East champion.
Rodgers, an East third seed in the 160-pound class, opened the 2005-2006 state tournament with back-to-back victories before losing in the quarterfinals to Coolidge's South region champion.
In the consolation bracket, he lost to Sahuarita and Round Valley qualifiers.
During the past football season, Rodgers was an all-region selection despite seeing limited playing time due to injuries.
LaMotte said he was not sure how those past injuries would affect Rodgers during the wrestling campaign.
Filling out the lineup card
With the five state placers entrenched in the lineup, LaMotte has spent most of the preseason trying to plug other wrestlers into the weight classes where they can be most successful.
Some of the candidates for starting honors include A.J. Rose and Nick Randall (103) Ben Sandoval and Jordan Bucher (119), Ryan Cox (125), Kyle Leonard (135), Isaac Cluff (140), Oshay Chovanec (189) and Bryan Burke (215).
LaMotte said he hopes to convince Longhorn football players Kevin Conner and Scott Andrus to also try out for the team in the heavyweight division.
The weight class is currently vacant.
With a roster of 25 prospects, LaMotte is focusing on teaching fundamentals, work ethic and improving conditioning.
"The kids are stepping up and working hard," LaMotte said. "We have to be patient, but we'll get there."
Around the region, LaMotte expects Show Low to once again be a force to reckon with.
At state, defending champion Safford is once again projected to battle for all the marbles.
"They have 13 kids back and look real solid," LaMotte said.
Last season, Safford racked up 227.50 state points to outdistance the second place Longhorns who finished with 164.50.
The Horns kick off the season tomorrow, Wednesday, at Fountain Hills. Match time is 3 p.m.
The team then travels Dec. 1 and 2 to near Las Vegas, Nev. where it is entered in the Green Valley Duals.
Last year, in the Horns first appearance in the tournament, Payson finished with a 5-2 dual match record and in fourth place.