With nine qualifiers in 14 weight divisions, winning a state championship is probably too much to ask of the Payson Longhorn wrestling team.
But, the Longhorns do have enough ammunition in their arsenal to make a plethora of state noise in the 3A tournament that begins today, Feb. 13, and continues tomorrow at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
PHS firepower begins with two East regional champions — Ben Sandoval and Nick Goodman.
Horn mat munitions continue with four East silver medalists — Jake Spear, Ben Lee, Bryan Burke and Garret McNeeley.
Regional bronze medalist Gunner Bauer could fire off some 3A salvos as could fourth-place finishers Joey Spear and Derek Williams.
If there is an intriguing sidebar to the Longhorns’ quest for state honors it’s Horn coach Travis Kopenhafer.
Because Kopenhafer is in his first year at the helm of the PHS program, he’ll be coaching for the first time in the 3A Arizona State Tournament and following on the heels of legends Dennis Pirch and Dave LaMotte.
Although he’s new, Kopenhafer has shown all year the enthusiasm, determination and moxie it takes to be a top-flight varsity coach that can mold a team into a state contender.
“Our guys are ready to go,” Kopenhafer said prior to the team’s departure to Prescott Valley.
• 135 pounds — Sandoval, a rugged junior, advances with a 43-4 record and is paired in the first round against the South’s four-seeded Travis Moore of Maricopa. Moore, a sophomore, enters with a 17-10 record.
If there is a grappler in the weight division who could stand in Sandoval’s way to his first state championship it is Safford senior Jon Casas (43-5), the South Region champion.
North champion Markos Serna (23-1) of Holbrook could also be a grappler Sandoval must reckon with.
“He is easily in the toughest weight at the tournament with two defending state champions in his bracket (Casas and Serna),” Kopenhafer said. “But I think he will be in the finals.”
• 152 pounds — Goodman’s East gold medal might be the feel-good story of the Longhorns’ season. He’s been in the program for four years, always battled hard, but has come up short of winning it all until taking first last week in the East tournament.
A state title would cap his yeoman-like career in fine fashion.
“I expect Nick to dominate this tournament and win the title his senior year,” Kopenhafer said.
In the first round Goodman must dispose of West three-seeded Nelson Wells of Parker.
That shouldn’t be a monumental task in that Wells is a mostly untested freshman with a 2-1 record. Goodman has posted a 38-7 mark this year.
For the Payson grappler to win his first state title, he will have to get past Max Goldschmitt (41-8), the South Region champion representing Empire.
Also in the weight class, Tyler Wickham (31-23) of Wickenburg brings to state strong credentials having won the West championship.
• 103 pounds — If there is a weight division that could turn into an all-out brawl, it’s this one.
Round Valley’s Colton Merrill (33-3) and Safford’s Troy Andrews (45-9) are favorites, but Payson freshman Jake Spear (29-15) could pull off an upset.
Merrill is the East champion, Andrews is the South title holder, and Spear is the East’s No. 2 seed.
The Payson wrestler opens the tournament today paired against the South’s three-seed Daniel Stevens (24-12) of Santa Cruz.
About Jake Spear, Kopenhafer said, “This kid is a freshman and is already turning into a leader.”
• 125 pounds — The favorite is Show Low defending state champion Ricky Ryan (46-3), who enters as the East’s No. 1 seed.
But Payson’s Ben Lee (39-5) has the talent and experience needed to give Ryan a classic battle.
Lee, the East runner-up, opens today against the South’s fourth-seeded Andrew Bennett (13-9) of Florence.
Safford, a team most everyone expects to win the team title, also has a strong entry in Richardo Sierra (47-4), the South champ.
• 215 pounds — Burke’s road to the title won’t be an easy one mostly because it travels through Blue Ridge East champion Steel Armstrong (43-1). But, Armstrong’s lone loss this season was to Burke in a mid-season tournament at Round Valley High School.
Unless there are some upsets in the weight division, Burke and Armstrong will probably clash tomorrow for the division championship.
Burke begins pursuit of a rematch against Armstrong today vs. North three-seed Pat Young (28-7) of Winslow.
The Payson grappler is 33-2 and the East silver medalist.
• 160 pounds — Williams is unseeded, but opens against South Region runner-up Sam Pennington of Florence who is 34-3.
Although Williams doesn’t enter with a great won-loss record, 26-23, Kopenhafer is confident in him. “He is tough as nails and wears people down,” he said.
To win a title, Williams will have to find a way to beat Blue Ridge’s Cole Nelson, the East Region champ with a 54-0 record. If Williams beats Pennington, he would probably meet Safford’s Michael Guerra (14-7) in the second round.
• 145 pounds — Bauer, a sophomore, finds himself in a tough weight division that includes South champ Nate Abril (47-4) of Safford and Monument Valley’s Ty Sells (26-1).
Because Sells competes in the wrestling-challenged North Region, it’s tough to tell just how good he is. But Abril is the real deal.
In the first round, Bauer (16-18) is pitted against South runner-up Brandon Bodes (29-9) of Fountain Hills.
“Gunner is unseeded, but is possibly the most dangerous unseeded wrestler in the tournament,” Kopenhafer said. “He is always taking chances and looking for a fall.
• 140 pounds — Joey Spear (4-5) experienced more than his fair share of injuries and setbacks the past season, but Kopenhafer has said the PHS junior could be a state surprise.
In the first round, Spear is paired against Fountain Hills’ Chris Bolstad (35-14), the South silver medalist.
The weight division also features an unbeaten wrestler in Parker’s Jerod Flores (55-0).
• Heavyweight — If there is a scheduling oddity in the first round, it is in the 285-pound class where McNeeley (20-21) must meet the wrestler, Snowflake’s Chris Pacheco (17-10), who defeated him last week for the East Region championship.
Usually, two wrestlers from the same region — especially one of them seeded No. 1 (Pacheco) and the other No. 2 (McNeeley) don’t clash until the later rounds of the tournament.
The odds-on favorite to win the heavyweight title is Safford’s Aaron Dawson (50-3) but James Gilchrist (51-8) of Parker could also be a contender.
Kopenhafer touts McNeeley as “an inspiration for our team, a first year wrestler and a senior, and he qualified for state with a real shot at placing high.”