A pair of former Payson High School wrestling stars will lead the Grand Canyon University Antelopes into action tomorrow, Nov. 13 against the Arizona State University Sun Devils.
The duo, GCU head wrestling coach R.C. LaHaye and assistant coach Larry Wilbanks, are two of the finest wrestlers to ever compete for the Horns.
Both wrestled at PHS under the tutelage of former coaches Dennis Pirch and Dave LaMotte.
Born and raised in Payson, LaHaye is the founder of the Antelope wrestling program and is in his third year as head coach.
As the Antelopes prepare for perhaps the biggest match since the inception of the team, LaHaye says, “We’re pretty excited, competing against D-1 schools, it’s what we’ve been building for all along.”
He also says a team goal this year, after being ranked as high as 19th in the nation last season, is “to be in the top five.”
During the team’s inaugural season three years ago, LaHaye could not field a full squad due to a lack of eligible wrestlers.
“In starting a program, the cupboard is pretty bare,” he said.
But that’s all changed — this year GCU fills every weight class.
“That definitely helps, it’s going to be better on everybody because in college wrestling you need to have camaraderie,” said LaHaye. “To have 10 other guys behind you when you come off the mat, knowing they need you, is important.”
At PHS, LaHaye was a three-time state champion and set a record for career wins. He was also a two-time high school All-American and the kingpin on three state championship teams.
After graduating from PHS, LaHaye accepted a wrestling scholarship to Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. At the school, he was a 2004 NCAA D-II All-American, a three-time NCAA Academic All-American and a three-time NCAA national qualifier.
In 2004, he helped Western attain a fourth-place finish in the nation.
A year after becoming GCU’s head wrestling coach, LaHaye convinced Wilbanks to join the coaching staff.
At Payson High, Wilbanks was 52-0 as a senior, 44-1 as a junior and 38-8 as a sophomore. He won state championships his final two years at PHS and was a state runner-up as a sophomore.
He also starred in football as a wide receiver and defensive back.
After graduating from PHS, Wilbanks followed in LaHaye’s footsteps accepting a scholarship to Western State College.
There, Wilbanks was a four-year letter winner and a three-time NCAA All-American and eventually won more than 100 matches, and in 2009 earned a berth in the NCAA Division II Winter Nationals Championship Festival.
Coaching alongside one another, LaHaye and Wilbanks have guided the fledgling Antelope team to some big wins, including a victory last year over the pair’s alma mater — a Western State team that was then nationally sixth-ranked and the defending Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference champion.
Following the win, Wilbanks said, “It was a little strange for both of us to be competing against Western, but it was a thrill because they are so highly-ranked.”
As important as some of those victories were in helping the two PHS graduates build a rapidly growing Antelope wrestling program, tomorrow’s throwdown against the Sun Devils might be GCU’s defining moment.
A victory over the Devils, or a strong showing, will stamp the program an equal of the PAC-10 powers and that would be a big-time boost in the two coaches’ recruiting efforts.
At tomorrow’s match, both LaHaye and Wilbanks are expecting a band of family and friends to attend, as well as Pirch and LaMotte.
“We should also have a good-sized crowd of about 1,000 (spectators),” LaHaye said.