Armed with eight qualifiers, including the East Region’s outstanding wrestler in the upper weight divisions, the Payson Longhorns travel today, Feb. 12, to Prescott Valley for the two-day Class 3A State Championship Tournament.
Among those to qualify for the big show with top-four finishes at last week’s East championship tournament in Lakeside are Jake Spear (112 pounds), Matt Schreur (119), Jacob Cluff (125), Ben Lee (130), Joey Spear (135), Ben Sandoval (140), Keith Williams (145), and Derek Williams (160).
The Horns do not have state qualifiers in the 103, 152, 171, 189, 215 and 285 weight divisions, which means the team is probably not a state title contender, but could climb high atop the final team standings with good showings from the qualifiers.
Derek Williams enters the tournament as a solid state championship contender having been named the East’s outstanding wrestler in the upper weight divisions after going undefeated in the regional tournament.
“He was tough there, very good,” said PHS assistant coach Joseph Harris.
Williams, a senior, enters the state fray with a 28-6 record and is pitted in the first round against River Valley’s Matt Martin, the West Region’s No. 2 seed with an 18-13 record.
For Williams to attain his goal of winning an individual state championship, he will probably have to outduel two of the division’s finest wrestlers — A.J. Gonzales (37-13) and Tyler Wickham (23-13).
Gonzales, of Coolidge, is the South Region champion and Wickenburg’s Wickham enters state as the West champ.
Like Williams, Jake Spear will take a No. 1 seed to the finale having won the East tournament title. He is 31-8 on the year and is paired in the first round against Estrella Foothills freshman J.C. Soto (13-26), the West’s No. 3 seed.
Jake Spear’s weight division might be the toughest in the tournament with region champions Paul Jaramillo (Winslow, 41-2), Greg Orneals (Safford, 39-5) and Kyle Lindhall (Chino Valley, (38-4) primed and ready to make a run at a gold medal.
Jake’s older brother Joey (35-5), a senior, is aligned at state as a top seed against Parker’s Casey Haaker, a senior sporting a 32-21 mark. Haaker represents the West’s No. 4 seed.
Joey Spear will be a favorite to win the state crown, but to do so must defeat the South champion Jamie Dominquez, a junior from Coolidge with a sterling 57-3 record.
Sandoval opened the season as a highly touted wrestler being courted by several colleges and universities.
Injuries, however, hampered him all season long resulting in a mediocre 9-4 record.
Despite the maladies, he rebounded to wrestle his way to a first-place finish in the East finals and opens state as a gold medal favorite armed with the region’s top seed.
In the first round, he takes on Tuba City senior Austin Scott (17-10), the North’s No. 2 seed.
The first round shouldn’t be much of a roadblock for Sandoval, but in later rounds he could lock horns with the likes of Zach Garcia (39-11) of Safford and Parker’s Jamie Gomes (22-17).
At first glance, the weight division doesn’t appear to be among the most competitive in the tournament, but the battles are for once in a lifetime opportunities and anything — including head-turning upsets — can occur.
Other PHS state seeds
Schreur, a freshman, represents the East No. 4 seed and will have his hands full in the opening round against West runner-up Austin Uecker (32-13) of Wickenburg.
Cluff has a 20-7 record and is the region’s No. 3 seed pitted against the West’s No. 4 Michael Rocha (23-19) of Chino Valley.
If there is a weight division that has been frustrating for the Horns the past three seasons it is 130 pounds where PHS junior Ben Lee is one of the finest wrestlers in the state as evidenced by his impressive 33-5 record.
The only trouble is the weight class also features another star in Show Low’s three-time defending state champion Ricky Ryan (48-1).
The Cougar stalwart has been a thorn in Lee’s side for three campaigns including a win last week in the East tournament weight class finals.
If the two rivals clash again, it won’t be until tomorrow for the state weight division championship.
Because Ryan is a senior, the battle — should it unfold as expected — would represent Lee’s last chance for a prep win over Ryan.
In the 145-pound East Region finals, sophomore Derek Williams lost to Blue Ridge’s Joseph Baldanado and will enter state as a No. 2 seed against Florence’s Logan Parker.
The Gopher grappler represents the South’s four-seed with a 12-7 mark.
All first and second round state matches will be decided today and the semifinals and finals will be contested tomorrow at Tim’s Toyota Center.
Admission is $6 for students and $8 for adults, per session. All day passes are available for $15.