A core of seven returning letter winners will buoy the Payson High School wrestling team as it battles this season to reap mat honors and build upon a rich tradition in the sport.
The veterans from last year’s team that finished second at state include Ben Lee, Jacob Cluff, Colton Ludtke, Matt Scheur, Jacob Spear, Hilton MacNab and Conner Anderson.
In that group, Lee, Scheur and Spear are the most experienced, having medaled at last season’s state tournament.
In fact, Lee has finished second at state the past two years losing only to Show Low’s Ricky Ryan. Lee wrapped up last 2009-2010 season with a 33-5 record and was the East Region silver medalist. Scheur was fourth at state last year and Spear finished fifth.
Spear, wrestling at 112 pounds, finished the season 31-8 and saw his quest to become a state champion ended in the second round by a 5-4 loss to Parker’s Billy Escoto.
Spear, then a sophomore, eventually finished the tournament 4-2.
Fans also remember last season that Payson was represented at state by then-freshman Matt Scheur (119) who battled weight issues most of the campaign.
At state, Scheur lost to Wickenburg’s Austin Uecker, 5-0, in the bronze medal finals.
Earlier in the tournament, Scheur was beaten 10-1 by Uecker.
Cluff also advanced to state last year, but was eliminated in the second round by an 11-1 loss to Round Valley’s Michael Udall.
While the returning letter winners and those with state experience will form the nucleus of this season’s wrestling team, there is also a group of talented freshmen that coach Casey Woodall is counting on for points.
The newcomers include Dallin McNab, Tanner Purtill, Daily Carnes, Dakota Harold, Austin Armstead, Kevin Slandell and Gabe Martinez.
If those young athletes come around as expected, the Horns could be in a position to battle for postseason honors.
In preseason training, most all 25 students trying out for the team are meeting Woodall’s lofty expectations.
“I feel the kids are working hard, buying in and making progress,” he said. “I have been encouraged by our practices.”
The focus of the training, he added has been, “to build a culture based on hard work and a winning mentality.”
Although the team is very young in terms of age and experience the new coach contends, “we have a lot of potential.”
This season’s team, however, will face a challenge none of its predecessors had to take on — including the great state championship teams of yesteryear coached by Dennis Pirch.
Previous wrestling teams competed in the East Region, 3A conference format that was eliminated this year in wrestling when the AIA mandated the former classifications be replaced with divisions that were then subdivided into sections.
In wrestling, Payson was placed in Division III along with 46 other teams, some of which are former 4A schools.
From Division III, Payson was aligned in the 17-team Section II.
The troubling issue with PHS being placed in Division III is that the school, with its 788 students, will compete for statewide honors against much larger schools.
For example, also in the division with Payson High are Paradise Valley (enrollment 1,603), Greenway (1,600), Thunderbird (1,561) and Mohave (1,551).
Competing against those “big schools” will be a stiff test for Payson and other smaller D-III schools like Snowflake (739), Fountain Hills (753) and Show Low (777).
Woodall, however, is not backing away from the challenge of the realignment, “I think (the realignment) needed to happen. It will elevate the level of wrestling in Arizona; everybody will have to get better.”
The coach does, however, know what awaits his team.
“On the state (division) scene, Mingus, a five-time 4A champion, and Thunderbird are traditional powerhouses,” he said. “You also have Safford, a five-time defending 3A state champion in the mix — state will be very interesting.”
He also predicts that in the division, Flagstaff, Coconino and Show Low, a former member of the 3A East, will field strong teams.
Although the PHS wrestlers will find themselves pitted against fierce competition, the new coach believes his athletes are up to the challenge.
“I believe the program has been a sleeping giant for some time now and that we have the potential to become a top program in the state throughout any classification,” he said. “I feel extremely lucky and excited to be at a school with the tradition Payson has.”
The Longhorns open the season Dec. 3-4 at the Rio Rancho Tournament in New Mexico.
The junior varsity campaign tips off tomorrow, Nov. 27, with a tournament in Wilson Dome.