Winning a regional tournament while forfeiting four weight classes and 24 team points is a Herculean challenge for any high school wrestling team.
That is, however, the obstacle the Longhorns must overcome if they are to contend for the East Region championship when the finals are held today, Feb. 6, and tomorrow in Eagar-Springerville.
Despite the shrunken roster, first-year coach Travis Kopenhafer believes his Horns do have a legitimate shot at the title.
“While we lack four weight classes, we have the potential to win this tournament with 10 guys,” the coach said. “We have been wrestling short-handed all season and these men have been able to get dual victories against Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Show Low.
Unique this season is that a legitimate title favorite has yet to emerge as has been the situation during most past campaigns when Show Low or Payson dominated.
“The region is really up in the air,” Kopenhafer said. “Everyone has beaten everyone this year and it’s anyone’s to win.”
Round Valley has several top-notch wrestlers and the Elks will be bolstered with the home field advantage.
Blue Ridge, Snowflake and Show Low have shown well in the regular season and all three boast full rosters, which will give them a double-digit point advantage over the depleted Longhorns.
However, Kopenhafer is not swayed by the forfeits, saying they can be overcome by the Longhorns’ maturity, focus and hunger for the regional championship.
As an example of the wrestlers’ mental toughness, the coach points to what sophomore Ben Lee often tells his teammates, “When it’s too hard for everyone else, it’s just right for us.”
Among the most intriguing battles at regionals will be in the 215-pound class that features Payson standout Bryan Burke.
In the finals, he’s probably destined to meet up again with Blue Ridge’s Steel Armstrong.
The two have locked horns in several memorable mat wars including a Jan. 21 clash at Round Valley High School. There, Burke carved out one of the most impressive wins in his four-year mat career whipping Armstrong 6-5.
Burke trailed Armstrong 5-3 going into the third period but used a cross face move to record a three-point near fall, which eventually proved to be the winning points.
Burke and Armstrong, a former PHS student-athlete who transferred to BRHS three years ago, have been on and off the field buddies since elementary school.
Although they are friends, the East final match that could pit the two against one another is sure to turn into the mother of all mat wars.
In the 135-pound class, junior Ben Sandoval will be out to prove the month he spent last summer conditioning and honing his skills in grueling intensive wrestling camps is now paying dividends.
“He has dominated our region thus far and I am looking for him to dominate this tournament,” the coach said. “He is really the hammer of this team and is looking for a state title.”
To win the regional crown, Sandoval must get past Show Low’s Tyler Holyoak.
At state, he must contend with Jon Casas of Safford.
Another weapon in the Longhorn arsenal is Ben Lee, a 125-pound sophomore who has two brothers who were state champs at Payson and went on to highly successful collegiate careers.
Lee, however, will have a tough rematch in the regionals when he faces defending state champion Ricky Ryan of Show Low.
“But Ben should win his first regional title,” Kopenhafer predicts.
In Arizona Republic individual rankings, Ryan is first in the weight class and Lee is third.
In the 103-pound class, freshman Jake Spear is top-ranked but has lost this year to Round Valley’s Colton Merrill who won the Survival of the Fittest Tournament.
The loss to Merrill was Spear’s only regional defeat this season.
Although 152-pound senior Nick Goodman has lost to Snowflake and Round Valley this season, Kopenhafer is confident in his abilities.
“I expect to see him finish first in the region.”
If there is a wrestler in the program who could be a surprise in Round Valley, it’s 130-pound Joey Garcia.
“He should be in the regional finals,” Kopenhafer said. “He is on track to upset some kids as he has been out lately with injuries, but has been wrestling tough.”
In the 160-pound battles, Blue Ridge’s returning state champion Cole Nelson is the odds-on favorite to repeat as the weight division’s top dog.
But, Payson’s Derek Williams has been on a run as of late and will be out to dethrone Nelson.
“He hopes to carry his momentum from the Tim Van Horn (tournament) into regionals,” the coach said.
Also for PHS, gutsy Gunner Bauer has been sidelined most of the season with injuries, but should be back on track for this weekend’s tournament.
“His drive and determination are second to none and I anticipate a great showing,” Kopenhafer said.
The coach also expects heavyweight Garrett McNeely and 140-pound Joey Spear to contribute to the Longhorn cause.
“Joey is looking to upset some bigger guys with his intensity and conditioning and Garrett has performed exceptionally well for a first-year high school wrestler,” Kopenhafer said.
The East doesn’t have many standout heavyweights, but if McNeeley makes it to state, he’ll have to find a way to get past Rio Rico’s Ricky Valdez and Allen Pablose of Dysart.
The 140-pound division is also relatively weak with the top wrestlers hailing from Holbrook, Winslow and Parker.
The top four wrestlers from the East Region tournament, as well as the 3A’s other three other region tournaments will advance to the state championships to be held Feb. 12-14 in Prescott.