Payson High School’s wrestling program is working from the ground up. With a young coach and a small group of mostly inexperienced wrestlers, after-school practices are running longer and more intensely to get the team caught up.
Coach Casey Woodall, himself a former All American wrestler, knows the journey stretches beyond one good practice, a good meet and even a good year. With only five returning varsity members, building up the program will likely take years.
That is why Woodall is coaching both the middle school and high school wrestling teams this year.
“Hopefully, we get kids started in sixth, seventh or eighth grade who stay with the program all the way through and by the time they are sophomores or juniors we have some experience behind us,” he said during Wednesday’s after-school practice in PHS’s dome.
What the team lacks in skill, it makes up for in enthusiasm.
“We have some really good attitudes,” Woodall said.
“We have got some sophomores and juniors who are really coming up in the program and are now starting to believe in the system and believe in themselves and that is always great to see.”
The system includes three-hour practices, five days a week and sometimes on Saturdays. Junior high practices start around 3:30 p.m. with the high school team coming in at 5:30 p.m. and working well into the evening.
Woodall, who has wrestled since third grade and is a two-time state champion and two-time All American in college, said conditioning and challenging practices are all part of his “tough” program.
An average practice includes intense drilling for 30 minutes, technique work for 45, live wrestling for 30 minutes and then conditioning for at least another 30.
Woodall is tapping into a wealth of wrestling experience at these practices with five volunteer trainers, including Zack Lee, a two-time state champion for Payson and two-time All American in college; Rocky Berry, another state champion for Payson; Ben Lee, a former PHS wrestler, Nick Goodman and PHS teacher Doug Eckhart.
Now in his second year coaching, Woodall said he is working on building up the younger players’ skill and confidence levels.
Although it is not typical to see a coach take on both school teams, the district has gone through four wrestling coaches in the last five years, so Woodall wanted to offer the players a sense of foundation.
“Our number have been really down the last couple of years, so I stepped in coaching the junior high hoping that we could get our numbers up and build up the program,” he said.
This year, there are 43 boys on the middle school roster and 27 on the high school team. Although the numbers are slightly up from last year, they are still low and those that have come out lack wrestling experience, Woodall said.
“This is one of the sports were you need that experience,” he said. “If you are a great athlete you can step on the football field and be a good football player, but if you are a great athlete you can’t step on a mat and be a great wrestler.”
Wrestling is more than learning to throw an opponent to the ground through force, it is learning to plan your move, anticipate theirs and having 15 counter moves ready, he said.
“It is the ultimate thinking man’s sport,” he said, “although most people think it is the exact opposite.”
Although they may not become state champions in one year, Woodall said wrestling is more than winning.
“Wrestling is the ultimate character building sport,” he said. “It is all about personal accountability. You win or lose based on your own effort, not on your teammates. And by far, I mean I have done every sport, and it is by far the most physical and mentally demanding out there.”
A couple of returning letter winners to watch this season are Zack Wilson and Jacob Spear. Spear is a three-time state placer and is going after a state title this year.
The high school’s first meet is a JV Jamboree Nov. 26 at Perry High School in Gilbert. The varsity’s first tournament is Dec. 3-4 at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.
The team’s only home event is the Payson Invitational on Jan. 20.
Last year, Payson placed 10th overall at state.
Mingus High School, which has won five out of the last six state titles, is the Longhorns’ toughest challenge, he said.
To beat a powerhouse like Mingus, Woodall is relying on the experience and help of his trainers.
“We have a lot of good help,” he said. “And we are getting great support from the parents.”