Former Payson High School wrestling stars R. C. LaHaye and Larry Wilbanks are on the cutting edge of building a mat dynasty at Grand Canyon University.
LaHaye, the Antelopes’ head coach and team founder, hooked up with Wilbanks, an assistant coach, to lead the team last year to the third place finish in the Division II National Championships.
This year, in a preseason poll of Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Coaches, GCU received all eight first place votes.
Much of the current success of the program can be attributed to the presence of 125-pound Kyle McCrite and 149-pound Bobby Ward.
Last year, McCrite defeated Augustanta’s Cody Lensing to win the national championship and set a GCU single season record with 38 victories.
Ward was third in the NCAA finals and is the defending super region champion. At the onset of this season, the GCU program received a big time boost with the addition of four-time Arizona State Champion Kory DeBerry, who transferred in from ASU.
Most impressive about GCU’s rise to fame is that the program is basically in its infancy, having been founded just five years ago by LaHaye.
Wilbanks, LaHaye’s longtime friend, joined the GCU staff as an assistant coach early in the team founding process.
Each season under the two former Longhorns, the team has gotten better.
“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.”
Longtime wrestling fans will remember that while 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.
Both LaHaye and Wilbanks attribute their passion for the sport to their former PHS coaches.
“We had some very solid and influential coaches growing up in Payson,” said LaHaye. “Coaches Dave LaMotte, Dennis Pirch, Doug Eckhardt, Don Heizer and so many more.”