Payson High School wrestling coach Casey Woodall says one of his goals is to build the Payson Invitational into one of the premier prep events in the state.
He doesn’t have far to go to achieve his objective.
Evidence the mat clash is one of the finest in Arizona turned up Jan. 21 and 22 in Wilson Dome where 21 teams from around the state and of all school size classifications gathered for the invitational that turned into a show of great sportsmanship, intense competition, team play and personal excellence.
It was, in short, what high school sports are all about.
The 21 teams, Woodall says, is “I believe the most we have had.”
Contributing to the success of the tournament was PHS counselor and former wrestling and football coach Don Heizer who severed as tournament director as he has done for decades.
“The tournament really ran smoothly thanks to him and the wrestler booster club that operated a hospitality room second to none,” said Woodall.
Following two full days of individual matches on four mats, Chandler High emerged as team champions posting 399 points. With 381.5 points Gilbert Highland was second.
Tiny Camp Verde proved it could battle on even terms with the so-called “big schools” by wrestling to a third-place finish with 307 points. The Cowboys also had two wrestlers win weight class titles.
The host Longhorns posted 192.5 points and were ninth overall.
“Obviously we are not satisfied with our finish, but I felt our kids wrestled fairly well,” said Woodall. “We had several kids go out and beat kids who were beating us decisively at the beginning of the year.”
Individually for the Longhorns, Ben Lee claimed the team’s only weight class championship, winning the gold in the 140-pound class.
In the finale, he edged Chandler’s Curtis Buelna 2-1 to finish the tournament undefeated.
Lee was later named the outstanding wrestler in the middleweight classes.
“It’s a prestigious honor for a tournament of this caliber,” said Woodall.
In the 125-pound division, Payson’s Jacob Spear grappled his way to a bronze medal showing.
He and Lee were the only two PHS team members to medal.
Woodall believes prospects for future tournaments are much brighter mostly because freshmen, sophomores and newcomers dominate the Horns’ roster.
“This is a rebuilding year for our young program and we have a lot of young guys and first time wrestlers in the lineup,” he said.
“However the kids have been working extremely hard and they are motivated to re-establish Payson wrestling as one of the premier programs in the state.”
The key to returning the Horns to the fame of yesteryear, the coach says, is “to build on that mentality (motivation), take it into the off-season and work hard through the summer.”
The young Horns received a glimpse of what Longhorn tradition is all about just days before the tournament when team founder and former coach Dennis Pirch visited a practice.
“He talked to the boys and after listening to him talk for all of 30 seconds it was apparent why he was such a great coach,” said Woodall. “Talk about a motivator.”
Pirch founded the wrestling team in 1973 and turned it into one of the top programs in the West before retiring in 2001. In 1997, he garnered the granddaddy of all coaching honors by being tapped “USA High School Coach of the Year.” National Wrestling Coaches Association officials presented the award that spring at the NCAA wrestling finals in Indianapolis.
In 2009 he was inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Next up for the Payson High grapplers is the Division III, Section I finals to be held Feb. 4 and 5 in Wilson Dome.
“It should be an outstanding tournament,” predicts PHS athletic director Rob Varner.
Top placers there will advance Feb. 11 and 12 to the “state” or Division III championships in Prescott.