Former Payson High School wrestling and football star R.C. LaHaye will soon be returning to his roots.
But this time, not as an athlete, but rather as a university coach bent on showing Rim Country fans the intrigue and excitement of university-level wrestling.
LaHaye, the coach and founder of the Grand Canyon University wrestling team, will bring his inaugural Antelope squad Nov. 28 to Wilson Dome to take on Western State College of Colorado.
Wilson Dome is where LaHaye starred on the mat during his four-year PHS varsity-wrestling career, from 1997 to 2001.
Also, Western State College is LaHaye's alma mater. After graduating from PHS, he accepted a wrestling scholarship to WSC, where he eventually became a two-time All-American.
LaHaye said the idea of holding a university level match in Wilson Dome was hatched by he and WSC coach Miles Van Hee.
"He recruited me and we are still good friends," LaHaye said. "We got together and decided this (match in Wilson dome) would be great."
LaHaye said the match will also benefit collegiate wrestling because it will expose small town fans to the sport and possibly encourage fledgling grapplers to continue wrestling at the next level.
"Before we started (the Grand Canyon wrestling program) there were not a lot of opportunities out there (for graduating high school wrestlers)," he said. "They could go to ASU, but only if they were Blue Chip and you have to be in engineering to go to Emery Riddle...those were their only in-state choices."
With the founding of the Antelope team, Arizona wrestlers now have the opportunity to continue their careers collegiately and remain close to home.
"It's a great chance for them," LaHaye said.
The GCU vs. WSC match will begin at 6 p.m. and be preceded, at 3:30 p.m., by PHS junior varsity and varsity matches against Fountain Hills.
The match will be designated a NCAA Division II Rocky Mountain Conference clash.
A new brand of wrestling
LaHaye said that local high school fans will notice that collegiate wrestling is more physical and aggressive than the prep sport.
"Everyone in college has been a (high school) state champion."
Also, matches are usually more evenly fought and fewer points are scored, LaHaye said.
The Western State team features former Payson High School state champions Zack Lee and Larry Wilbanks. Both, like LaHaye, will be returning to the home town dome where they enjoyed some of their finest moments in prep sports.
"I'm sure it will be fun and exciting for all of us," LaHaye said.
While the GCU roster doesn't feature any Payson alumni, there are two wrestlers probably familiar to local fans. R.J. Rios formerly starred for the Safford Bulldogs and Nick Peidmont shined at Sahuarita.
Safford, Sahuarita and Payson boast three of the finest wrestling programs in the 3A Conference.
The new coach
In assuming the reins ever GCU wrestling team, LaHaye has had to balance coaching responsibilities with his job as a financial planner.
"It's tough, but it's going great," LaHaye said.
"The (GCU) administration has been fantastic and we were able to sign 40 kids to our first recruiting class."
But against WSC, the Antelopes might find themselves a bit shorthanded because some of the players recruited either had to red shirt, or did not meet some team and eligibility requirements.
"We will be very young, some of our best (wrestlers) will be watching only," LaHaye said.
Despite the rigors of founding a program, the new coach foresees a bright future, partly because GCU administrators are supporting the program by authorizing the building of a new $2 million state-of-the-art facility that should be completed next year.
"It will be the best Division-II wrestling facility in the United States," LaHaye said.
Among those predicting the former PHS wrestling star will be a coaching success is his former high school coach, Dennis Pirch.
"He's just the man for the job," he said. "He'll bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the program."
As a Longhorn
Longhorn fans remember LaHaye as the PHS wrestler who in 2001 capped his sterling four year career by being named the Arizona Republic's "Small School Wrestler of the Year."
Also during his senior season he was an All-Arizona First Team selection in the 140-pound weight division and the only 3A athlete named to the first team.
LaHaye also was named, as a senior to the Arizona Wrestling Coaches Association All-Arizona squad.
In the AWCA's annual Red Vs. Blue competition held at Casa Grande High School, LaHaye defeated Class 4A state champion Max Vickers of Mingus 5-3.
The win extended LaHaye's winning streak to 112 consecutive triumphs and pushed his career record to 180-9.
At PHS, LaHaye became one of the school's most accomplished wrestlers by winning three consecutive region championships, a trio of state titles and 10 most valuable wrestling tournament awards.