Mito Mendivil made a name for himself as a prep athlete in Tucson.
Now, the 27-year-old rookie head coach hopes to restore Payson High’s wrestling program to its former glory.
The 2011 Empire High graduate was a four-time state qualifier and three-time state medalist who ranks seventh in state history with 207 career wins. He also ranks fifth in state history with 137 career escapes. Mendivil earned a wrestling scholarship to Dakota Wesleyan University and wrestled there for five seasons.
The Tucson Daily Star ranks him No. 2 on its list of the top 10 Empire football players. He started three years at quarterback and led the Ravens to the playoffs every year. He threw for a school career-record 4,340 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Now, the first-year Payson High English teacher is targeting a return to prominence for a wrestling program that once stood as the best among all small schools in Arizona, but has struggled mightily in recent years.
Mendivil is the Longhorns’ fourth head coach in the last three years. He takes over for Tim McCloskey, who spent just one season leading the program. Bryan Burke served as the head coach for two years before moving into an assistant role last season after taking over as the head football coach.
PHS hired Mark Guthrie to replace him, but he resigned before the season started because of health reasons and McCloskey took his place.
Coaching turnover has been a problem since Hall of Fame coach Dennis Pirch stepped down following the 2000-01 season. Pirch started the program and guided the Longhorns to 10 team state titles and 46 individual state championships in 28 seasons.
The Longhorns haven’t claimed a team crown since he left, but 18 more wrestlers stood at the top of the medal stand in the 12 seasons immediately after he departed, giving Payson a streak of at least one state champ for 23 consecutive seasons.
However, Dylan Keeney in 2017 is the only Longhorn to win a title in the last six years.
The Longhorns are coming off their two worst state tournament performances in the last 10 years, with just three qualifiers in both seasons. They placed 27th in 2018 and 33rd last year.
The Longhorns have their work cut out for them once again in the tough Division 3 Section 4. The top four at each weight in the section tournament qualify for the state tournament and Payson has struggled to emerge with many.
Fortunately, Payson hosts the section tournament on Feb. 8. The state tournament is Feb. 14-15 at Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
The Longhorns open the season in a four-team match at Prescott on Wednesday. They host the first of three regular-season home events in a five-team match on Jan. 8.
Their other home dates include the Tim Van Horn Memorial Invitational on Jan. 24-25 and a three-team battle with Blue Ridge and Coconino on Jan. 29.
Mendivil is Payson’s 10th head coach since Pirch retired. None have lasted more than four seasons.
Soto Sellis was Payson’s lone state medalist last season, finishing fifth at 195 as a sophomore. Two other qualifiers, senior Ely Keeney (126) and sophomore Travis Christianson (182) also return. Keeney was Payson’s only medalist in 2018, placing sixth at 132.
Mendivil spent two years as an assistant coach at Marana Mountain View before taking last season off. Mountain View won the 2017 Div. 2 state title in his first year on the staff.
He said he plans to stick around and stop the coaching musical chairs at Payson.
“I plan on being here and establishing the tradition we lost and trying to get it back to the prominence Payson once had,” he said.
He knows about legendary coaches.
His grandfather, John McGlumphy, started the wrestling program at Benson and, like Pirch, is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Arizona Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“I come from a pedigree of coaching,” he said.
He said he’s not intimidated by the long shadow Pirch cast.
“I don’t look at it as a bad thing to be in the shadow; I embrace it,” he said. “I’ve got some big shoes to fill and I’m OK with that. We’re going to put our nose to the grindstone and get to work.”
Filling all 14 weight classes is something most small schools struggle with. But a roster featuring 28 names leaves Mendivil optimistic.
There were no seniors on last year’s roster, which means this year’s squad boasts plenty of experience.
“We’re a lot older this year,” he said. “I want to say we have six seniors and their leadership is the reason we’re going to be so competitive.”
Alex Leos (120) joins Keeney as a senior leader.
Another senior, Jaeden Perez, is a first-year wrestler and the only girl on the team. She should play a key role at a weight the Horns wouldn’t be able to fill without her.
She’ll wrestle in the girls division in tournaments that feature one. The Arizona Interscholastic Association started a girls division in the state tournament last season.
Burke returns as an assistant coach, along with Dave Daniels. Former Longhorn wrestler Chance Elmer joins the staff.