Ex-Payson Coach Goes To Hall Of Fame

Dennis Pirch recognized for wrestling work


John and Kathe Ketchem congratulate former Payson High School teacher and wrestling coach Dennis Pirch (far left) during his surprise retirement party held three years ago at the Tonto Apache gymnasium. Pirch has recently been selected to the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

John and Kathe Ketchem congratulate former Payson High School teacher and wrestling coach Dennis Pirch (far left) during his surprise retirement party held three years ago at the Tonto Apache gymnasium. Pirch has recently been selected to the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

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Roundup file photo

Dennis Pirch was known to be a fixture of concentration during his 28 years of coaching wrestling at PHS.

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Roundup file photo

Fans of Dennis Pirch scan his retirement display set up at his farewell party held in the Tonto Apache gymnasium.

Modest, unpretentious, humble, self-effacing — all are adjectives that over the years have been used to describe former Payson High School wrestling coach and teacher Dennis Pirch.

Although most who know him are aware of his immense modesty, his humility turned more evident this week when he chose to not tell most of his friends and co-workers — some at the Roundup where he is an outdoors writer — that he’s going to soon receive the greatest honor that can be bestowed on an Arizona high school coach.

It’ll arrive on April 26 in Phoenix where he’ll be inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

His decision to not reveal his induction comes as no secret to former Payson High School coach, athletic director and principal Tom Meck, now living in Buckeye.

“That’s just him, he wouldn’t have told anyone,” Meck said. “We all know he’s just that way.”

Pirch has been eligible for the Hall of Fame since his retirement in 2001 but has always shrugged off efforts others have made to begin the induction process.

Former PHS athletic director Barry Smith kept ACA papers in his desk for years, but Pirch usually replied “maybe in the future” when Smith and others asked him to apply for membership.

That frustrated Smith, but he always heeded Pirch’s wishes, secretly hoping induction day would someday be just over the horizon.

True to Pirch’s reserved nature, the legendary coach is not revealing why he finally agreed to be initiated into the Hall that contains the names of most of the greatest coaches in Arizona high school sports history.

Since his retirement, Pirch has written for the Payson Roundup, was once a co-owner in The Tackle Box in Tonto Basin and now teaches part time at the Gila County Payson Education Center.

He also serves as co-chairman of the FLW Payson committee that last week successfully hosted a first-ever FLW professional bass tournament at Roosevelt Lake.

Although Pirch stepped away from the coaching profession years ago, the accolades never stopped flowing in.

In 2003, the Arizona High School All-Star Wrestling Meet held at Casa Grande High School was dedicated to him.

In honoring the former Longhorn coach, the Arizona Coaches Association featured Pirch in an all-star ceremony and the official program.

The tribute to him read:

“Dennis has been a public school teacher for 32 years at Payson High School and had the opportunity to begin the wrestling program in 1974. He was in the leadership role for 28 years as the head coach and has many fond memories of watching boys develop into fine young men.”

The ACA also cited him for the numerous “Coach of the Year” awards he had received.

In 1997, he garnered the granddaddy of them all by being tapped “USA High School Coach of the Year.” National Wrestling Coaches Association officials presented the award that spring at the NCAA wrestling finals in Indianapolis.

In receiving the NWCA citation, Pirch thanked his family and the assistant coaches who helped build the program into one of the most successful in the United States. Former assistants included Bruce Sitko, Teddy Pettet, Don Heizer, Doug Eckhardt and Dave LaMotte.

Pirch also thanked Meck for allowing him to found the wrestling program and giving him the freedom to build it as he saw fit.

In 1974, when Pirch was on the verge of moving from Payson to the Valley to pursue other coaching opportunities, Meck convinced him to stay and start a PHS wrestling program.

In Pirch’s acceptance he also said, “I give all the glory for whatever impact I’ve had to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior.”

A spiritual man, Pirch has a reputation of being readily available to provide guidance, prayer and strategies for attacking life challenges to those seeking a path to God.

Life’s lessons learned on a mat

While winning was always important to Pirch, it didn’t consume him. Over the years, he maintained that wrestling was more than “Ws” — it was a venue where young people had the opportunity to develop the values so important in today’s society. The values he often spoke of were integrity, self-reliance, responsibility and a strong work ethic.

In the 1998-99 Payson Wrestling Handbook, Pirch wrote that participation in Longhorn wrestling would “enable each person to not only be a winner and a champion on the mat, but also, after he leaves, to be a champion throughout his life.”

And, the former coach never wavered in his belief that youngsters who committed themselves to the program would eventually succeed.

“Those who stay will be champions,” read a plaque that hung in the PHS wrestling room for decades.

Among the many former wrestlers who thrived in the program are R.C. LaHaye and Eric Anderson.

LaHaye, a former collegiate All-American and now the coach at Grand Canyon University, once revealed that under Pirch, he learned as much about life as wrestling.

“Some of the most important things he taught us were about being good citizens and good students. It wasn’t always about sports, that’s why I respect him so much,” LaHaye said.

Anderson, a former state champion turned Payson dentist, said he now realizes Pirch “was one of those coaches whose greatest concern was to create character in young men.”

Also, Pirch’s program, Anderson continued, “helped young men achieve more than they ever thought possible.”

Roots in Iowa

Pirch’s love for wrestling has its roots during his early high school years in his home state of Iowa.

“I think I liked wrestling because I wasn’t very good in basketball ... I was cut from the team,” he said.

After his family left Iowa to move to Mesa, he continued to participate in the sport at Westwood High School and later at Mesa College and Northern Arizona University.

After graduating from NAU and accepting a teaching contract at Payson High, he began in 1973 laying the groundwork for the school’s first wrestling program.

“With Tom Meck’s blessing,” Pirch says.

His first chore was to scour the tiny mountain town searching for teenagers interested in participating.

At first, he didn’t find many takers, only about 12 students showed up for tryouts and some of those didn’t make it through the inaugural season.

Realizing the future of the sport hinged on the interest generated among the younger athletes, Pirch assisted by his wife, Kathy, and Chuck Crabdree, went about founding a youth wrestling program for elementary and junior high school students.

Eventually, that youth program became one of the best in the state and was widely acknowledged as the foundation of the high school team’s 28 years of overwhelming success.

PHS principal Roy Sandoval, a freshman member of Payson High School’s first team remembers the early years well.

“He (Pirch) was fresh out of college and he used to wear his (NAU) Lumberjack singlet to practices to wrestle us,” he said. “He’d get those long legs around you and squeeze, it was like being caught by a boa constrictor.”

After a so-so inaugural year, the Longhorn wrestling team returned to the mat in 1974-75 to win what would be the first in a long line of regional crowns. Competing in the Class B Central Region against the likes of Hayden, Apache Junction and Phoenix Christian, the Horns won the region title with a largely untested group of mat rookies.

The team also fared well in state tournaments.

“We were state runners-up in 1976-77 and then third at state my senior year,” Sandoval remembers.

As the program began to flourish, Payson athletes gained reputations as being among the most experienced, well-conditioned and fundamentally sound wrestlers in Arizona.

Eventually, the PHS program reached the epitome of success winning 10 state championships, 23 regional titles, more than 100 tournament championships and a top-20 national ranking.

Pirch also coached countless state champions many of whom went on to successful collegiate careers.

On the day of his retirement from coaching, Pirch reflected on one of the most storied coaching careers in Arizona sports history saying, “It has been an absolute blessing. It was a great ride, I have so many great memories.”

Pirch retired from teaching three years after giving up the coaching reins. In departing a campus he had been a huge part of for decades, he kept a low profile, preferring to ride off into the sunset much like a cowboy hero of the Old West.

But in his wake, he left a legacy of excellence and dedication few have ever matched.

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