A wrestling program that was once among the finest in small-town America could be facing a rocky future.
The cloud hanging over the program is due to the unexpected resignation of coach Dave LaMotte, who stepped down late last week, saying he needed more time to help care for his son Jeff.
The younger LaMotte has been battling a serious liver ailment for the past few years that has had him in and out of hospitals.
"His latest setback was due to complications from a liver transplant," Dave LaMotte said. "We have him home now, but I need to be around to help take care of things."
Jeff LaMotte, a 1998 Longhorn wrestling Arizona All-Star, went on to become an All-American at West Liberty State in West Virginia. Recently, he has been working as a middle school/junior high teacher-coach in Queen Creek.
In July, Jeff teamed with his father to coach the Payson Wrestling Camp held in Wilson Dome.
"He was doing really well then," Dave LaMotte said. "We thought we were over the hump."
Following Dave LaMotte's resignation, the coaching opening was immediately announced by PHS athletic director Jason Lobik and principal Roy Sandoval.
"The job is open and we are looking," Lobik said.
The two administrators now find themselves in a time pinch, as preseason practices are slated to begin Oct. 29.
Sandoval and Lobik said it was their goal to have a coaching replacement, or replacements, selected by the end of this week.
There are several coaching candidates working in the school district with wrestling experience.
However, their availability for added job responsibilities would be up to administrators. Also, some might not be interested in the position.
Among those with PHS wrestling ties are PHS auto shop teacher and student government adviser Doug Eckhardt, counselor Don Heizer, Frontier Elementary School P.E. teacher Rich Ormand, and Sandoval.
Eckhardt, a former Longhorn mat standout and longtime assistant to team founder Dennis Pirch, has committed to coach at Rim Country Middle School.
Heizer is a regional Wrestling USA Assistant Coach of the Year, former Coach of the Year in Colorado and longtime assistant to Pirch, Ormand and LaMotte
Heizer said the time commitments he must make to his PHS counseling position would hinder him from taking over the program, but he would continue to serve as director of the Longhorns' three major tournaments.
"I'll help out where I can," he said.
Ormand, head coach from 2004 to 2006, led the Longhorns to two Grand Canyon region championships, a Class 3A state runner-up showing and two fourth-place finishes. He was also a two-time Grand Canyon region coach of the year, before stepping down in the spring of 2006.
When Ormand resigned he gave the birth of his third child as the reason for quitting, but left the door open for his return to coaching.
"I pray that I may in the future put all that I have learned to good use if I am ever to head coach again," he said.
Ormand was not in school this week and unavailable for comment.
Sandoval also has deep roots in the wrestling program, having starred for the
Horns in the 1970s. He later returned to PHS to work as an assistant to Pirch before becoming the school's principal. Sandoval also has a son, Ben, in the program, who is one of the team's budding stars.Although Sandoval has the moxie to head the program and said he would help out when possible, it's highly unusual in high school athlete circles for a principal to also work as a head coach.
Of course, Pirch is a valuable resource and a legend in Arizona high school wrestling.
But, he retired from teaching two years ago, now co-owns The Tackle Box bait shop in Tonto Basin, writes an outdoors column for the Payson Roundup and has not indicated he would be interested in returning to coaching.
Tough shoes to fill
No matter who takes over for LaMotte, replacing him will be a tough act to follow.
Last year, he led the Horns to a 24-6 dual-meet record and a third place in the Arizona State championships.
LaMotte debuted in the Payson wrestling program more than 10 years ago as an assistant to Pirch.
During his tenure as an assistant, he helped mold some of Payson's' finest grapplers, including R.C. LaHaye, Matt McCarty, Larry Wilbanks, George Coleman, Nate Lee and Zack Lee.
Following Pirch's retirement in 2001, LaMotte was selected as his replacement.
During his first two seasons as head coach, he guided the Longhorns to an East region championship and two state second-place showings.
In 2003, LaMotte surprised almost everyone by resigning and later moving from Payson.
In 2006, he returned to PHS and was chosen Ormand's replacement.
Upon taking over for Ormand, LaMotte said his goal was "to continue to build on the tradition of excellence."
Whoever is chosen to replace LaMotte, the new coach will have a solid core of returning letter winners to build the team around.
They include Taylor Byers, Ryan Cox, Nick Goodman, Oshay Chovanec and Bryan Burke.
Sophomores who will bring depth to the team are Nick Randall, Alex Korth, Ben Sandoval and Nathan O'Donnel.
Seniors Isaac Cluff, Mark McCarty and Kevin Bryant will be counted on to supply leadership.
Anyone interested in working in the program should contact Sandoval or Lobik at (928) 474-2233.