Grand Canyon University wrestling coaches R.C. LaHaye and Larry Wilbanks have no doubts the athletic experiences they enjoyed at Payson High School greatly contributed to their current coaching success on the collegiate level.
“We had some very solid and influential coaches growing up in Payson,” said LaHaye, the GCU head coach. “Coaches Dave Lamotte, Dennis Pirch, Doug Eckhardt, Don Heizer and so many more.
“We cannot thank them enough for teaching us this sport as well as the values that go along with it.”
The plaudits come on the heels of the former Horn matmen leading Grand Canyon University to its finest wrestling hour.
On March 10 at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships in Pueblo, Colo. The Antelopes produced two national champions, four All-Americans and finished third as a team.
Most impressive about the feat is that the GCU program is basically in its infancy having been founded just four years ago by LaHaye.
Wilbanks joined the GCU staff as an assistant coach early in the team founding process.
While winning the national bronze medal is impressive, it’s only the beginning for the program.
“We went from 18th the first year, to seventh, to third in the nation and next year expect to win a national title,” LaHaye said. “We are still building, we have improved every year.”
Individually in the tournament, Grand Canyon’s Victor Carazo (174) and Kyle McCrite (125) wrestled their way to national championships.
Carazo, LaHaye said, has been with the GCU program since it started and “has been instrumental in leading the way for our team from a start-up program to a national powerhouse.
“It is extremely gratifying to see him go out as a national champion and a three-time All-American. McCrite opened the tournament on a tear beating a No. 1 ranked opponent early on.
“He’s only a junior and will have a chance to repeat as a national champion next year.”
At Payson High School, LaHaye was one of the finest wrestlers to ever pass through the storied Longhorn program. He finished with a 130-9 record and was a contender for most valuable wrestler at just about every prep tournament in which he competed. After winning three state championships at PHS, he accepted a scholarship to Western State where he continued his career.
Wilbanks, the 4A state champion as a PHS senior in 2004, compiled a 51-0 record and won the state title.
As a 160-pound junior, Wilbanks finished 44-1 and won both the East region and 3A conference titles. His one loss was a 4-3 decision in double overtime to a Tempe High grappler. During Wilbanks’ sophomore year, he compiled a 38-8 mark in the 135-pound division. He also won the East region crown and was a state runner-up. As a skinny, 112-pound freshman, Wilbanks claimed the East championship and battled to sixth place at the state tournament. After graduating from PHS, he went to Western State where he and LaHaye were teammates.