Although Ben Lee has been one of the state’s finest wrestlers throughout his high school career, the grand prize of a state weight class championship always slipped away.
As frustrating as coming up a tad short is, the trying times ended for Lee on Feb. 12 at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
There, the Payson High School senior wrestled his way to the 140-pound state championship, dominating the weight class field that included some of the finest grapplers in the state.
Only one week earlier, Lee captured the Division III, Section II 140-pound championship, outscoring his opponents by an enormous 87-8 margin.
At state, Lee opened as the No. 1 seed paired against Tuba City’s Austin Scott.
A 13-5 victory over Scott propelled Lee into the second round against Thunderbird’s Thomas Balls. A win by a decision there pushed the PHS student-athlete into the semifinals where he defeated Christopher Mata, a No. 4 seed from Youngker.
In the final round, Lee pinned Washington’s Mark Garcia to nail down the title.
With the elusive state triumph, Lee wrapped up the season with a 31-2 record.
The state win is also another in a long list of championships the family has won.
Lee’s two older brothers, Zack and Nathan, won multiple state crowns during their PHS school years. Both also went on to become collegiate All-Americans in the sport.
Team shows well
Lee’s victory also helped the Longhorn mat men finish 10th overall in the rugged 45-team field.
Thunderbird surprised onlookers, winning the tournament with 158.5 points. Mingus, one of the pre-tournament favorites, was second (157.5) and two former 3A powers, Rio Rico (127) and Safford (103.5), were third and fourth respectively.
Individually for Payson, 125-pound Jacob Spear, a No. 6 seed, grappled his way to a sixth-place finish. For the season, he was 19-11.
Spear opened with a win over Estrella Foothills mat man J.C. Soto, but was sent to the conso-
lation bracket in the second round after a loss to Tucson Amphi’s Justin Campos.
Spear was 2-2 in the consolation bracket, losing the battle for fifth place 7-3 to Campos in a rematch.
Payson’s other state qualifiers, Jacob Cluff (130), Colton Ludtke (135) and Gunner Bauer, did not medal by finishing among the top six.
At the Division III, section II championships, Cluff and Ludtke qualified for state with third-place finishes. Bauer was a fifth-place qualifier who took a 15th seed into the tournament. That seed gave him the unenviable task of facing, in the first round, two-seeded Stephen South of Estrella Foothills
South decisioned Bauer and went on to finish as the weight class runner-up.
Cluff went to state seeded ninth and managed a first-round upset over eighth-seeded Michah Barker of Coconino.
In the second round, however, eventual weight class champion Dakota Beach of Rio Rico whipped Cluff.
The Payson wrestler was eventually eliminated in the consolation bracket with a loss to No. 5 seeded Jason Pearce of Show Low.
Ludtke took an eighth-seed in the tournament and lived up to his billing by decisioning No. 9 Josh Coulston of Estrella.
Ludtke, however, was sent packing to the consolation bracket in the second round after losing to top-seeded Brand Lindsey of Flagstaff.
Mingus wrestler Dillion Lightfoot eliminated Lutke from the tournament with a 7-0 consolation bracket win.
With the prep season at an end, wrestlers turn their attention to off-season competition — a challenging task coach Casey Woodall continually stresses is the key to future success.