Ben Lee’s spectacular and well deserved ride to the 140-pound weight division gold medal paced the Longhorn wrestling team to a sixth-place finish in the 15-team Division III, Section II wrestling tournament.
Payson posted an impressive 109.5 points despite not having entrants in three weight classes and filling a handful of other divisions with untested freshmen and sophomores.
Also remarkable about the PHS effort on Feb. 4 and 5 in Wilson Dome is that it was chalked up against some of the finest wrestling teams in the state, including some that were formerly Class 4A “big school” powers.
Also present, were several schools from the former 3A East Region, which was once considered the toughest in the state.
“The level of competition was very high,” said longtime tournament director Don Heizer. “Our time schedule ran long because the matches were so even and we had very few falls in the Saturday (Feb. 5) session.”
All 15 teams entered were competing in the first-ever division-section tournament because last fall the Arizona Interscholastic Association did away with the old conference-region format replacing it with divisions, which were subdivided into sections.
Lee, who is 27-2 this season and No. 1 ranked in the state, decisioned Blue Ridge’s Brad Syth, 13-2, in the championship finale.
The Payson standout, whose older brother Zack is now an assistant coach in the PHS program, opened pursuit of his first state crown with a 24-2 win over Michael Salazar of Flagstaff. In the second round, Lee whipped Braxton Luttrell of Mingus, 25-2.
In the semifinal round, Page wrestler Shawn Lucero fell 26-2 to the Longhorn star.
Lee wrapped up the sectional title on Saturday evening with his 10-point win over Syth.
In all, Lee outpointed his opponents by a jaw-dropping 87-8 margin.
His performance drew praise from coach Casey Woodall, “Ben put on a dominating performance in the finals — that was fun to watch.”
The victory had to be doubly sweet for Lee because he has come so close to winning a state crown the last few years, but in the final goings has come up a tad short.
Last year, the state championship 130-pound match drew the attention of statewide media and fans alike because it pitted Show Low’s Ricky Ryan, who was in the hunt for his fourth consecutive state title, against Lee.
For the Cougar star to claim the elusive honor of winning four titles he had to get past the rugged Lee who had been Ryan’s chief tormentor all season long.
In the state finals, however, Lee couldn’t stay with Ryan, who won on a technical fall.
Lee finished the season 33-5 and the region and state runner-up to Ryan.
In addition to Lee’s win at the 2011 section tournament, the Longhorns received contributions from four other top-five finishing wrestlers.
Jacob Spear (125) was second, Jacob Cluff (130) and Colton Ludtke (135) were third and Gunner Bauer (16) wrestled to fifth.
Of those, Spear came within an eyelash of winning a state championship, losing a 5-3 heartbreaker to Chino Valley’s Kyle Lindahl in the gold medal round. The Payson grappler opened the postseason with a 13-7 record and easily disposed of Monument Valley’s Karla Peaches, 14-7, in the first round.
Spear then whipped Mingus’ Dylan Wilber, 15-7, and Kemp Todacheenie of Page, 16-7, to reach the finale vs. Lindahl.
Cluff, who was 22-7 in the regular season, took a bye in the first round and in the second round defeated Tuba City’s Frankie Begay, 23-7.
Paired against Show Low’s Jason Pearce in the semifinals, Cluff dropped a hard-fought 9-6 decision.
Ludtke, 15-8, also received a first round bye and defeated Jon-Michael Watson of Window Rock by a fall in the second round. In the third, Ludkte lost by a fall to Flagstaff’s Brad Lindsay.
Following the matches, Woodall praised Ludtke and Cluff saying, “both lost hard-fought battles in the semifinals, but they wrestled extremely tough and I was very proud of how they competed.
“It is fun to sit in the corner (of the mat) when kids are going all-out like that.”
Bauer, an all-region football player as well as accomplished wrestler, fell into the consolation bracket after losing in the second round. In the consolation bracket, he rallied for three consecutive wins to take fifth.
His first victory was by a fall over Tempe’s Tre Sterdivant. He then pinned Monument Valley’s Orrin Whalen to reach the battle for fifth where he edged Show Low’s Colten Merrill, 5-4.
At the conclusion of the tournament Woodall reflected on the Longhorns’ performances saying, “There is no question we have some rebuilding to do.
“We have a lot of young guys, but the amount of work they are willing to put in this off-season will determine what kind of program we have next year.”
The challenge the wrestlers face, he added, “Is to stay motivated and make some big improvements over the next nine months.”
In the final team standings of the section championships, former 4A wrestling power Mingus took home the title racking up a dominating 246.5 points.
Second place Coconino trailed in the distance with 134.5 points.
Individually Mingus produced four gold medalists and had six top finishers in all the weight classes except 125, 171 and 189.
Also in the team standings, former 3A East tough guy Blue Ridge was third with 134.5 points, Chino Valley tallied 134 and was fourth. With 116 points, Flagstaff took fifth.
On to state
For the postseason in the new division-section format, sectional tournaments were also held at Greenway High School (Section I) and Empire High School (Section III).
The top six finishers in each weight class at all three sectional tournaments will advance to the Division III, or “state” tournament to be held Feb. 11 and 12 at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
On opening day, session I and II of the tournament begin at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. respectively.
On Feb. 12, session III tips off at 9:30 a.m.
The championship round will be held Saturday beginning at 4 p.m.
Admission to the tournament is $10 per session for adults and $6 for students.
All-day passes priced at $15 will also be available.
The AIA is advising spectators to expect long lines at Tim’s Toyota Center because of onsite security checking individual bags.