The depth of talent in the Payson wrestling program is as deep as the Mariana Trench, which showed as the Lions overwhelmed the 5A field of wrestlers to take home the gold trophy at the 2021 state tournament held at Wasatch High School in Heber on Thursday.
Ideally, Payson head coach Jeb Clark might have hoped for more finalists and state champions, but what won it for Payson was their 15 total state placers. A key ingredient to the Lion success was the love and brotherhood that comes with their program.
“It’s what these guys are all about,” Clark said. “They love each other. They wrestle for each other They’re just one of the grittiest teams I ever coached.”
The Lion head coach was impressed with the quality of the field and the higher number of teams that produced champions and finalists than in recent years.
“It wasn’t just the top two or three teams with all the finalists,” Clark said. “The depth (of the 5A field) was very good this year and our boys just wrestled well.”
Payson did its damage in the first two rounds ensuring that 11 wrestlers placed in the top four by reaching the semifinals.
Though only three reached the finals, Ethan Boulton (120 pounds), Trevor Frank (145), Landon Shurtleff (160), Tate Christensen (195) and Jeff Durrant (285) all battled back to place third. Boulton beat his teammate Colton Theobald for the consolation championship. Perhaps as impressive is that 23 of the 24 Payson qualifiers won a match at the big tourney.
Aaron Garcia (106) was Payson’s lone state champion as the junior dominated Farmington’s Jacob Waddoups earning a second round win by pin.
“It feels great (taking state),” Garcia said. “All this hard work paid off, and it feels great. Everybody deserves it, everyone is working hard and they are great teammates and we love each other.”
Payson’s second finalist Layne Shepherd (126) was gunning for his second state title but was upset by Maple Mountain’s Brock Morris 10-8 in sudden victory.
Shepherd built up an early 6-3 lead only to see Morris actually score the next five points to go ahead 8-6. Morris rode Shepherd for most of the final period before Shepherd earned a reversal in the final seconds.
The action was wild at the very end of the bout and Lion head coach Jeb Clark argued that his grappler had earned near-fall points at the end of the match but the officials decided differently.
With less than 10 seconds left in the overtime period, Morris earned the winning takedown. Morris, a senior, placed second as a sophomore and third last season. For his efforts he was named as the Outstanding Lower Weight wrestler.
In another action-packed match, Payson came up short again as Viewmont’s Karson Rees scored a reversal in the final seconds to win 6-5 just right after Palmer had reversed Rees to take a 5-4 lead.
Box Elder had good star power putting five wrestlers into the championship finals, all of which won, which enabled the Bees to overtake Wasatch for the silver trophy.
Wasatch put three wrestlers in the finals but when Box Elder’s Bridger Ricks (120) beat Wasp Heath Clyde 9-4 to win his third state title, it all but clinched second place for the Bees. The Wasps went for 0-for-3 in the championship finals as Clyde (120), Brock Lloyd (138) and Mason Hulme (195) earned silver medals.
Mountain View put four wrestlers into the finals and went 2-for-4 as twin brothers Radi Stafford (182) and Elijah Stafford (220) won titles beating Timpview’s Conner Morris and Cael Richardson respectively.
Bruin Chris Ezparza (285) lost a heartbreaker when in the ultimate tiebreaker he tried a roll through to escape and was caught on his back by Box Elder’s Kellen Collier and pinned. Gable Stoddard (113) also lost to a Bee grappler when he fell to Jackson Ricks, 4-1.
The Bruins (124) finished fifth in the team race behind Payson (268), Box Elder (205.5), Wasatch (182.5) and Mountain Ridge (146.5).
For Radi Stafford, it was redemption as last year in the final seconds of his championship match, he lost his temper and was disqualified. But this year there were no issues, and he put on a dominating performance with two pins and two wins against returning state placers.
“I just had a lot of fun and had a lot of confidence going into the championship match,” Radi Stafford said. “I have to thank everyone in the wrestling room.”
Radi Stafford and brother Elijah Stafford are much more nervous for each other than for their own matches.
“I was so pumped when he won,” Elijah Stafford said.
“And did you see me running around when he won?” Radi Stafford said.
Elijah Stafford was also named as the Outstanding Wrestler in the upper weight divisions.
As far as other Utah County teams, Maple Mountain (70.5) finished ninth while Spanish Fork with 145-pound runner-up Clayton Orton was 10th with 64 points. Lehi (51.5) was 12th, Timpanogos (41.5) 14th, Timpview (40) 15th, Springville (36) 16th, Salem Hills (31) 17th, Orem (6) 21st, and Provo was blanked and finished 28th in the 28-team field.
Besides the Stafford twins, another set of twins battled for state championships. Moses Espinoza-Owens (152) won a state title after finishing second last year, while Marcus (160) lost in his bid to repeat as a state champion.
Timpview had multiple state finalists for the first time since 1986 when the Thunderbirds placed fourth in the 3A state tourney. But its sister school Provo was shutout at the state tournament for the first time since 1989. It was also the first time Wasatch didn’t crown an individual champion since 1989.
Woods Cross crowned its first state champion since 1982 with Colton Erickson (138) while Murray ended a 24-year drought for state champions when Conway Christensen (145) earned a title.
A total of five returning state champions from last year failed to repeat.
Mountain Ridge’s Kysion Garcia (106) won over the crowd with his courageous effort to compete. Garcia broke his tibia and fibula at the Rockwell Rumble in mid-January but wrestled just two weeks later at the Divisional tournament. He placed sixth there to qualify for state. Garcia then placed third at state. Garcia, who took state as a freshman, had the goal of being a 4-time state champion but proved that he didn’t need a gold medal to be a winner.
Stunning upsets: Wasatch’s River Wardle was going for his fourth state title and was well on his way to winning his quarterfinal match when Mountain Ridge’s Preston Stevens earned a defensive pin. Wardle battled back for fifth place, the highest he could place with the bracket format used because of COVID-19 protocols and the one-day state tourney only allowing wrestlers to compete in five matches.
Payson’s Braxton Monroe (220) downed returning East High state champion Sau Tafisi 9-6 in the quarterfinals to help the Lion run to the state title.
Timpview’s Conner Morris (182) downed returning state champion Andrew Jensen of Maple Mountain in a 3-2 thriller. Jensen was in on a leg shot in the final seconds, but after the officials conferred, they decided he didn’t have control for the winning takedown before time had expired. In another upset, Spanish Fork’s Izaac Wetzel (152) downed Payson’s Layne Osborn 7-5 in the quarterfinals. Wetzel placed fourth in his divisional while Osborn was the Divisional A champion.