Although the Longhorn wrestling team is not a threat to win the Division III “State” tournament, there are five hard-nosed team members determined to represent the team in the finest tradition of the storied program.
The five state qualifiers entered in the state tournament include Ben Lee, Jacob Spear, Jacob Cluff, Colton Ludtke and Gunner Bauer.
It’s almost mathematically impossible for that limited number of qualifiers to garner enough team points to make the Horns a title threat. Especially when some other teams, like Section II champion Mingus, sends 10 wrestlers to state.
But five qualifiers can make considerable noise on the state scene, which is what coach Casey Woodall and the grapplers are hoping for.
The Payson wrestlers earned state berths Feb. 4-5 at the Section II championships held in Payson.
Among the PHS contingent, Lee advances to state as the 140-pound section champion, armed with an impressive 27-2 record.
Spear finished second among the Section II 125-pounders and is 16-8 for the year.
Cluff (130) and Ludtke (135) advance to state as Section II bronze medalists. Cluff is 25-8 and Ludtke sports 18-9 credentials.
Bauer (160) qualified for state as a fifth-place sectional finisher after winning three consecutive hard fought matches in the consolation bracket. He travels to state with a 15-15 record.
If there is a truly unique tale unfolding among the Horn wrestlers, it centers on Ben Lee and his older brother, Zack, who is currently serving as an assistant coach to Woodall.
Zack, a former two-time state wrestling champion for the Longhorns, went on to earn back-to-back All-American honors at Western State College in Colorado.
As a PHS assistant coach, Zack’s duties are to tutor all the wrestlers, including his younger brother.
The two also sometimes wrestle one another in practice sessions.
While a competitive relationship such as that might sometimes cause sibling problems, none exist between Ben and Zack.
“He’s pretty receptive of it (advice),” Zack said.
During each of Ben’s sectional tournament matches, his older brother and Woodall were at the edge of the mat, dutifully doling out tips, advice and encouragement.
Whatever counsel the two offered must have worked because Ben waltzed through the tournament undefeated, outscoring his opponents by an 87-8 margin.
As the No. 1 ranked 140-pounder in the state, Ben is an odds-on favorite to win his first state crown.
Spear’s toughest competition at state might come from Chino Valley’s Kyle Lindahl — the wrestler who edged him 5-3 for the section championship.
Both Lee and Spear will have the advantage of being seeded into their weight class bracket.
Rules for the first-ever Division III “state” tournament allow only sectional champions and their runners-up be paced into a six-man pool for seeding purposes.
That is a tremendous advantage, especially in the tournament’s early rounds.
Ludtke, Cluff and Bauer won’t be seeded, but are expected to give a good accounting of themselves, partly because they are advancing from a section that many consider the toughest in the state.
In aligning the schools last fall into the new division-section configuration, the Arizona Interscholastic Association placed the former 3A East region teams along with the former 4A Grand Canyon schools into D-III, Section II.
“Those were top to bottom the two toughest regions in 3A and 4A, so now that they are all in the same section, there is some great wrestling,” said former PHS wrestling coach and sectional tournament director Don Heizer.
Among those top-notch teams from the former East region to be aligned in Section II was the Show Low Cougars, which finished seventh at the sectional tournament, 7.5 points behind Payson.
“That was a good measuring stick for our program,” said Woodall. “Show Low hammered us earlier in the year.”
For the state-wrestling tournament, in the new division-section format, sectional tournaments were held last week at Greenway High School (Section I), Payson (Section II) and Empire High School (Section III).
The top six finishers in each weight class at all three sectional tournaments are eligible to wrestle in the Division III, or “state” tournament to be held today, Feb. 11, and tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 12, at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
Today, doors open for session I of the tournament at 9:30 a.m. and wrestling begins a half-hour later. Session II begins 2:30 p.m. and is expected to continue until about 5:30 p.m.
On Feb. 12, session III tips off at 9:30 a.m.
Also on Saturday, the arena will be cleared from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. and the championship round begins at 4 p.m.
It will be during those three sessions and the championship round that all qualifiers from Division III will compete.
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.