A mat baptism by fire awaits the Longhorn wrestling team when it competes Dec. 4 and 5 in the prestigious Rio Rancho Invitational in Albuquerque, N.M.
The inferno type of initiation is due to the number of top caliber teams the Horns are set to face during the tournament.
“This tournament brings in the best teams from New Mexico, Nevada and California,” said PHS coach Travis Koppenhafer. “This year, Payson and Safford were the only Arizona schools invited.”
Over the course of the two days, Payson is scheduled to compete in 10 duals, including one with the host team that might be the best in the fray.
“Rio Rancho has dominated the state of New Mexico for the past 15 years, much the same way that (Tucson) Sunnyside has (done) in Arizona,” Koppenhafer said.
While the New Mexico skirmish is a highlight of Payson’s 2009-10 schedule, there is another showdown on the agenda that is equally as competitive — the Alamosa, Colo. Invitational on Jan. 15 and 16, 2010.
“Alamosa is a powerhouse in Colorado wrestling,” Koppenhafer said.
Alamosa has won the Reno, Nev. Tournament of Champions several times and has been ranked in the top 25 teams in the nation for five seasons.
“I think it will be a great experience for the boys to get out and see how tough schools are outside of Arizona,” Koppenhafer said.
Although the Horns will spend much of their time on the road this season, the team will host two major tournaments in Wilson Dome — the East vs. West Duals on Jan. 13 and the Payson Invitational on Jan. 22 and 23.
The two matches replace the Tim Van Horn Invitational and Rim Country Duals that had been a huge part of the wrestling scene for the past two decades.
The East vs. West showdown features Class 3A teams from two geographic regions in a head-to-head battle.
“It will be great because it brings all the teams from the West (River Valley, Parker, Chino Valley, Wickenburg and Estrella Foothills) and they dual all the teams from the East,” said Koppenhafer.
The Payson Invitational has drawn a commitment from some of the state’s finest teams regardless of school size classification. Among the schools indicating they will participate are Arizona’s Higley, Gilbert Highland, Gilbert Mesquite and Queen Creek, as well as a team from Durango, Colo.
The coach calls the new schedule, “tough but one that should pay off when it comes time for state.”
The regular season
Scanning the upcoming schedule, Koppenhafer points to defending state champion Safford as the team to beat in the 3A conference. He also believes Holbrook, of the North Region, is a possible state title contender.
In the 3A East Region, Koppenhafer predicts, “It looks like another dog fight — Show Low returns the most (state) qualifiers, but Snowflake, Round Valley and Blue Ridge are already reloaded and full of tough kids.”
As for Payson, the coach says, “I am optimistic about this year. We return five state qualifiers and three top-four place winners.”
The key to success, he adds, “is to “get our young guys to step into leadership roles for us.
“We have a lot of work to do, but I think our level of technique surprised those coaches around us last year, especially (when wrestling) on top.”
The Horns had the opportunity to prep for the upcoming season during a demanding off-season campaign that included attending a team camp at Adams State Colorado College and participating in the Arizona High Altitude Intensive Camp at Payson High School.
At the camp, the aspiring grapplers rubbed elbows with some of the country’s finest wrestlers.
“Having clinicians here that had won national titles and made World and Olympic teams had an impact on the boys,” said Koppenhafer.
With preparations now in the rearview mirror and the new season’s start only a few days away, Koppenhafer is eager for the matches to begin, “The coaches are excited and the boys are ready to get after it.”