Lions wrestling team performs well in divisional, sets up for state tournament
The Payson High School wrestling team went into last weekend’s Divisional Tournament at Desert Hills High School with a reputation to defend and a state championship run in mind.
The Lions’ wrestling team is one of four 3A squads feared throughout the state of Utah on the mat and they performed well against the schools of Region 12 as they came out with a second-place team score of 340.5.
Delta, the team Payson will be gunning for in the state tournament at Utah Valley University this weekend, took first in the division with 379.5 points. The Rabbits, known for their roster depth, qualified 20 wrestlers for the state tourney. Payson qualified 16 of its own boys for state, but also did considerable damage in the individual winnings.
Payson’s Big Four – Mitch Brown (126), Jed Mellen (132), Zac Loveless (138), and Cole Ford (145) – all took home first-place finishes at the divisional tournament, giving the Lions twice as many individual champions as the Rabbits who ended with two first-place finishes (Dane Nielson and Ryan Pertersen).
The divisional has set up Payson and Delta for a thrilling championship battle this weekend where Payson will look to upset the first-place ranked Rabbits in team scores.
Featuring a big four of top-ranked wrestlers, the Lions will need other wrestlers to step up to championship form in order to beat Delta. Kaelen Loveless (160) and Dalton Judd (195) both had second-place finishes in the divisional, and Kaelen will have an opportunity to take down top-ranked Dane Nielson (160) as an underdog.
Nine-year coach Chris Loveless has had a great roster to work with this season with six state placers returning to the team from the previous year, three of which were returning state champs. “We brought back a good core, they’re our captains that are kind of leading our team,” said Loveless.
Loveless would like to get back to state championship form with a trophy this year. In the last three years Payson has taken state twice with the lone losing year coming last season in a third-place finish.
The coach is optimistic about Payson’s chances this year, even with the top-ranked Delta Rabbits blocking their path to championship.
“Delta’s the team to beat,” said Loveless. “It’s going to be a good race I think. They’re tough, they’ve won three state championships in the last three years.”
Loveless will have his chance when the tournament kicks off on Friday. He’ll lead a Lions team with a rich tradition of wrestling into battle with the support of numerous Payson alumni wrestlers in the stands cheering on their own family.
“We have a number of kids on our team whose dads or uncles or brothers wrestled here,” said Loveless. “That tradition is one of the reasons Payson’s teams are so strong.”
That strength has led to a season of big wins in various tournaments. From the Millard Iron Man tournament where they went 8-2, the Juab Winter Classic where they took first place, the Uintahs Tournament of Champions where they were second, the Rocky Mountain Rumble where they took second again, and the Pineview Tournament where they had another first-place finish, the Lions are knocking on the door of the state championship right now.
Jed Mellen of Santaquin is a junior all-star and returning state champion on the team, he thinks Payson will take state and feels like he’s doing his family proud this year on the mat.
His teammate Zac Loveless agrees that the team has what it takes to be champs this year. In order to beat Delta he says the Lions will have to put in the practice hours. “We need to work harder than them (Delta),” said Zac Lovelss. “Work harder in practice.”
The state tournament starts Friday, Feb 17 and ends on Saturday.