Spend a few minutes with Travis Kopenhafer and his weight training class in old PHS gym and you’ll leave convinced he’s the coach capable of returning the Payson High School wrestling program to what it was in its glory days under Dennis Pirch.
Kopenhafer, a first-year head coach, displays the same enthusiasm and passion that Pirch, the team founder, had for the sport.
The new coach is also convinced that the road to success begins among the younger athletes in elementary and middle schools.
“Feeder programs are the key to success,” he says. “We must get them interested and involved.”
When wrestlers reach the varsity level in the new coach’s program, he predicts they will be buoyed by seasons of youth, middle school and junior varsity wrestling.
“The more experience we can get the kids, the better,” he said.
Kopenhafer also espouses the virtues of an extensive off-season program just as Pirch did in the spring and summers with USA Wrestling competition.
“I want us to host intensive wrestling camps, take the kids around the country to compete against the best,” he said. “The Reno Tournament of Championships should be a goal every year.”
In addition to ratcheting up the quality of the off-season competition, Kopenhafer is seeking new and better opponents for the regular season.
Only a few weeks ago he added the Alamosa, Colo. Invitational to the schedule. The Longhorns will travel there on Jan. 17, 2009.
“There will be some tough, tough teams,” the coach said. “One team that’s won something like 14 state titles in Colorado.”
Also in the new coach’s program, he’ll stress the value of top-notch physical conditioning and an aggressive style of wrestling.
“We want to have the best shape kids in the state and then attack, attack, attack,” he said. “We want to take it to a new level.”
Wrestling fans might also notice this year a slight change in strategy, in that Payson athletes will be — in grappling terminology — “wrestling from the top.” Which means the Horns will be trying to control and turn their opponents from the top position to earn near-fall points and pins. There might be less of the strategy of scoring points by takedowns and then letting the opponent up.
“We want to be good on top,” Kopenhafer said.
While watching the new coach teach a physical education class at Payson High School it becomes obvious he, like Pirch, has the charisma and respect it takes to draw young athletes into an athletic program.
His banter with students is genuinely friendly and affable but also authoritative.
To help jump start his program, the new coach has recruited three well-known assistants to help — Joe Harris, Porter Wilbanks and Kelly Owens.
Both Harris and Owens have previously coached in the PHS wrestling program and Wilbanks is a former Longhorn state champion.
Plenty of know-how
Although Kopenhafer does not have previous head coaching experience, he is well versed in the sport having been an assistant the past two years at Arizona State University.
He also helped coach in the famous Sunkist Kids wrestling program in Tempe and competed for the team in the 157-pound class.
At Adams State College in Colorado he was a three-time All-American and a national champion.
Last year, he qualified for the Olympic Trials, but came up just short of making the team.
“It was an awesome experience, I only wish it would have turned out a little bit differently,” he said.
Although Kopenhafer preaches the values of getting involved in the sport early, his wrestling career didn’t begin until his junior year at tiny Mancos High School in Southwestern Colorado where his graduating class had only 12 students.
“We were so small we didn’t have a wrestling team until my junior year,” he said. “But being from a small town made me really want to come to Payson.”
Also influencing his decision to step away from the collegiate scene and into high school wrestling was the influence he can have in molding young people’s lives.
“Coaches in high school are more instrumental in who the wrestlers are, who they become,” he said.
“It’s not that way in college.”
Kopenhafer had his first opportunity to bring a positive influence into the lives of his young charges when preseason practices kicked off Nov. 3.
Although his squad was almost cut in half because many of the wrestlers are members of the football team that is still playing in the state tournament, the coach departed his first practice impressed.
“These kids know how to work, they’ve been through some tough practices,” he said. “I have some high expectations for the team.”
The Longhorns begin the season Nov. 26 at Fountain Hills and make their home debut Dec. 10 in a multi-meet in Wilson Dome.