Armed with a determined resolve that usually buoys the toughest of underdogs, the Payson Longhorns cross faced, flanked and “back doored” their way to a silver medal showing in the Class 3A State championships.
During the state finals held Feb. 12 and 13 at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, the Horns racked up 152.50 points to trail only state champion Safford in the standings.
Safford ran away with the gold, posting a stunning 267 points.
Somewhat ironically, the three teams — Snowflake, Show Low and Blue Ridge — that whipped the Longhorns in the East region tournament, all trailed Payson in the state standings.
The Lobos (144) were third, the East champion Cougars took fourth (132.50) and Blue Ridge (127) fell to fifth.
What captured most coaches’, wrestlers’ and boosters’ attention was that Payson chalked up the heralded state feat despite entering the meet with only eight qualifiers among the 14 weight divisions.
The eight, however, were all top-notch wrestlers who eventually earned team points.
Payson’s silver medal, assistant coach Joseph Harris said, “was like David and Goliath, no one gave us much of a chance.”
He attributed the stellar showing to “everyone on the team scoring for us, we placed seven out of our eight (qualifiers) and the one who didn’t placed, scored points with wins.”
The finest showing among the Rim Country contingent was turned in by 140-pound Ben Sandoval, who battled his way to his first-ever state crown.
Most of the season has been an exercise is frustration for the PHS senior because he battled a series of maladies that date back to the football season. Most serious was a leg infection that kept him sidelined for a month.
Entering the state tournament, he had a less than sterling 11-4 record, but rose to the occasion to finish 4-0 among the state qualifiers. In the championship round, he pinned Safford’s Zach Garcia in 2:25. Garcia entered the tournament as the South region champion with a 39-11 record.
“Ben never quit, he knew what he wanted and kept working for it,” Harris said.
A match that drew the attention of statewide media and fans alike occurred in the 130-pound weight division where Show Low’s Ricky Ryan was in the hunt for his fourth consecutive state title.
Only 23 other wrestlers in Arizona prep sports history have accomplished the feat.
But for the Cougar star to claim the elusive honor, he had to get past Payson’s Ben Lee.
The Horn stalwart had been Ryan’s biggest nemesis all season long, but in the state weight class finals, couldn’t stay with Ryan, who won on a technical fall.
Ryan entered the state tournament with a 49-1 record and as the East champion. Lee was 33-5 and the region runner-up to Ryan.
“It’s tough when you have the two finest wrestlers in the state (aligned) in the same weight class and same region,” Harris said. “Someone has to win and someone has to lose.”
Onlookers in Prescott Valley enjoyed another thrill in the 135-weight division finals where Payson’s East region champion, Joey Spear (30-6) was paired off against Fountain Hill’s south runner-up Jake Vaught (22-2).
Spear and Vaught battled each other nose to nose through three grueling periods before the match went into overtime.
In dramatic fashion, Vaught won a 4-2 decision to claim the 3A state title.
Spear entered the finale having survived a rough and tumble 11-9 thriller in the state semifinals against Winslow’s North champion Aaron Baca.
Also taking second for the Horns was 145-pound sophomore Keith Williams.
After going 3-0 in the preliminary rounds of the tournament, including a stunning win over South champion Brandon Bodes of Fountain Hills, Williams faced off against Blue Ridge’s Joseph Baldanado in the finals.
Williams entered the state tournament as the East’s second seed and Baldanado was the East champion.
The BR star, relying on his senior experience over the sophomore Williams, eventually claimed the state title on a fall in 3:41.
Following the match, Harris praised Keith for his resourcefulness, especially in the win over Bodes, “He took on the champion, beat him, and then went on to the finals.”
Although Keith lost, the evening was not over for the Williams family, whose other son, 160-pound Derek, wrestled his way to a third-place finish, pinning Blue Ridge’s Kevin Henderson in the bronze medal bout.
Williams, a senior with a 32-7 record, entered the tournament as the East’s Outstanding Wrestler in the Upper Weight Divisions, but was upset, 3-2 in the quarterfinals by Snowflake’s Brandt Perkins, a three seed.
If there was a tournament heartbreaker for the Horns, it occurred in the 112-pound division where Payson was represented by East champion Jake Spear (31-8).
Spear’s quest to become a state champion ended in the second round with a 5-4 loss to Parker’s Billy Escoto.
Spear eventually finished the tournament 4-2 and in fifth place. However, the teenager is only a sophomore and has two more full seasons to continue his quest for a state crown.
In the 119-pound battles, Payson was represented by freshman Matt Schruer who has battled weight issues since the early season.
As the East’s fourth seed, Schruer eventually took fourth, losing to Wickenburg’s Austin Uecker, 5-0, in the bronze medal finals.
Earlier in the tournament, Schruer had lost 10-1 to Uecker.
In the 125-pound class, PHS junior Jacob Cluff opened the tournament as a No. 3 seed and showed promise with a first-round win over Chino Valley’s Michael Rocha.
Cluff’s state title dreams, however, ended in the second round with a 11-1 loss to East champion Mitchell Udall of Round Valley.
With the season at an end, the Longhorns will gather one final time for the traditional awards banquet. Harris said a time, date and place has not yet been settled on, but will be announced later this week.