With just three seniors, four juniors and nobody to send onto the mat at three weight classes, Payson High enters the wrestling season with challenges.
But first-year head coach Zach Lee believes the Longhorns, who open the season at home against Show Low and Winslow at 4 p.m. Wednesday, will battle.
“We’re a young team with quite a few freshmen, but we’re going to be able to compete,” said the former two-time PHS state champion. “We’re going to be missing three weight classes — 160, 171 and 220. But we’ll have somebody at every other weight, which is better than last year. We always have a problem filling those heavy weights, but we’ve got a few big kids this year.”
An Arizona Interscholastic Association realignment has Payson competing in the new Division 3 Section 1 with 11 other schools — Blue Ridge, Chinle, Chino Valley, Cottonwood Mingus, Flagstaff, Flagstaff Coconino, Holbrook, Kayenta Monument Valley, Page, Show Low and Winslow. There are 48 teams in Division 3, with 12 teams in Sections 1 and 3, 13 in Section 2 and 11 in Section 4.
The section tournament is scheduled for Winslow. The state tournament is Feb. 13-14 at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
“We’re in a little different division,” Lee said. “It’s back to the old 3A East (Region) plus a few more teams. It does make it tougher. There are tougher teams in a tougher division.”
Having four state qualifiers from each of the four sections would work for the 16-team bracket. However, Lee said he believes Section 1 will get five qualifiers, while one of the other sections will get just three. That likely would be Section 4. That’s because of the quality of the programs in Section 1.
“(Athletic director Don) Heizer said it’s pretty much a done deal,” Lee said.
Payson had eight state qualifiers in finishing seventh in the Division 3 state tournament a year ago. Phoenix Thunderbird won, followed by Rio Rico, Coconino, Snowflake, Campo Verde and Moon Valley.
State medalists Conner Anderson (first at 160) and Anselmo Vasquez (fourth at 220) have graduated, along with qualifiers William McCrary (126) and Kyle Brown (170). But four qualifiers return, including senior Dallin Macnab, who placed fifth at 120. Also back are senior Tate Sweeney (145) and juniors Trevor Anderson (132) and Chase Elmer (138).
Six starters are back. Sophomore Tito Vega returns at 182 after starting there as a freshman. Sophomore Tanner Dendy started at 113 as a freshman but will compete with Anderson at 126 this season. Anderson, Conner’s younger brother, drops down a weight after filling in on varsity and performing well enough to qualify for state as a sophomore.
All of those wrestlers, according to their coach, could do something special this season.
“All of these kids are right there and, with a good tournament, have a possibility of winning a state title,” Lee said.
Macnab jumps up two weight classes this season to 132. “He’s always been right there at the state tournament and this year we’re going to get him a place and hopefully he’ll win a state title,” Lee said. “It’s definitely an achievable goal for him.”
Sweeney remains at 145. “He’s definitely looking to place at state this year,” Lee said. “He was close last year, but just had a couple of bad matches.”
Elmer also looks to place at the same weight he qualified at in 2013. “He was competitive with people winning state titles and he should have been right there,” Lee said.
The other senior is Steve Perry, who’ll be at 285 in his first season wrestling. His coach is thrilled to have him.
“We have a heavyweight this year,” Lee said. “He’s been practicing hard and he’s a great addition to the team.”
The other juniors are Nathan Hodges (126) and Pedro Chavez (195). There are six sophomores. Joining Dendy and Vega are Byron McCrary (106), Gabe Hernandez (120), Nathan Cluff (152) and Dalton Conway (152). With eight, the freshman class is the largest on the team. That group features Brooks Randall (106), Brendan Macnab (113), Dylan Keeney (120), Kenneth Ayres (126), Benjamin Abney (132), Kolbi Rackley (132), Daniel Cluff (138) and Isaiah Skinner (145).
With 15 kids bunched up in the six weight classes from 120-152, there is no question where the Longhorns’ strength is.
“We’re definitely strong in the middle weights,” Lee said. “That’s where the majority of our kids end up. So there’ll be some battles in the lighter middleweights. I think we’ll have a competitive lineup though about 152.”
Brendan Macnab, Dallin’s brother, joins the team at 113 after winning the White Mountain League title as a middle school wrestler. “He’s been putting his time in all summer and we’re expecting big things out of him,” Lee said.
The coach said the youngsters will get their opportunities this season.
“I’ve got a lot of freshmen this year,” Lee said. “Some of the kids have been on the team but haven’t had much varsity experience. They’re gonna get their chance this year.”
Lee said the Longhorns are focusing on fundamentals this season.
“We’re expecting good things,” he said. “The kids are looking good, so far. We changed things up a little bit this year. We’re going back to basics. We’re going in a little different direction this year.
“It’s the same mentality, but just a little more back to basics. We’re focusing on being more fundamentally sound, as opposed to the unorthodox style of wrestling we’ve used in the last couple of years.
“It’s just the way the previous two coaches wrestled in college and how they had success. While it’s a good style of wrestling, I think the kids can benefit from having a better base in fundamentals, as well as the stuff they already know.”