Thirty-seven Hernando County grapplers enter two mat tourneys Friday with one goal – to reach the 49th annual FHSAA Finals set for Feb. 15-16 at The Lakeland Center.
Thirty-three of those 37 enter what is considered by many as the toughest Class 2A regional in the Sunshine State.
Two-time defending 2A state champion Springstead advanced 12 grapplers into Osceola County's Class 2A, Region II, aka the "Region of Doom" at St. Cloud, followed by Nature Coast (10), Hernando (six) and Central (five).
For the novice mat fans, 2A-II has certainly lived up to its moniker as a proven burial ground for several outstanding mat men.
The good news, however, is whoever has survived the 2A-II litmus test has fared well at the state's elite level.
This regional over the past three winters has produced the more state placers (93), state finalists (42) and state champions (26) than any 2A regional.
Twenty-eight teams are expected in a two-day, double-elimination IBT (individually bracketed tournament) format including: 2A-5 champion Orlando-Edgewater, 2A-6 champ Lakeland-Lake Gibson, 2A-7 champ Springstead, 2A-8 champ River Ridge, Auburndale, Bartow, Central, Hernando, Nature Coast, Celebration, Deltona, Dunedin, Eagle Lake-Lake Region, Harmony, Citrus, Lakeland-Kathleen, Land O' Lakes, Sunlake, Lecanto, Mitchell, Orlando-Evans, Orlando-Oak Ridge, Orlando-Pine Ridge, Sebring, Tarpon Springs, Zephyrhills, Winter Haven and host St. Cloud.
The two-time defending tournament champion is Springstead. Last year's win allowed the Eagles to tie the 1997-98 county record set by Hall of Fame skipper Bob Levija's teams.
In Year 41 of Hernando County wrestling, no local team has ever won back-to-back-to-back regional titles.
This current Springstead mat squad is also attempting to tie another milestone. Levija's 2000-01 Eagle team and Eric Swensen's 2010-11 Eagle team both hold the county record for most tournament victories in one season (eight).
The two-time regional runner-up is Lake Gibson. The Braves, who have finished as state runners-up the past two winters, are seeking their first-ever regional title.
Meanwhile, second-year Weeki Wachee, will compete in the Class 1A, Region II Tournament again at Lakeland-Tenoroc with four grapplers.
As per state guidelines, both venues begin competition in at noon today.
Saturday will begin with the semifinal round at 10 a.m. followed by wrestlebacks. Consolation finals (for third/fourth) and finals (first/second) will be held at 3:30 p.m. along two mats at St. Cloud.
Only Saturday night's top four placers in each of 14 weight divisions automatically qualify for states in Polk County.
St. Cloud head coach Matt Milton also serves as 2A-II's tournament director.
"Since I've been here we've always been in this region. If you can get out of here, you'll most likely place at the states," said Milton, who has qualified 17 grapplers to states, featuring 13 placers. "Our region always had solid teams with solid kids. This year may be the weakest it has been.
"Our overall placing will be down (at states)," suggested Coach Milton. "That's due to our lack of depth."
"There's talent in the region," insists Lake Gibson's veteran mentor Danny Walker, "But the depth is not there. In the past, this region would have 7-8 good kids in a bracket, now it's down to 3-4."
On predicting a winner, "I think it'll be real close. No more than 10-12 points," forecasted Coach Milton. "On paper, Lake Gibson can beat Springstead. If Springstead qualifies nine, I don't think Lake Gibson can match it."
Springstead enters with 12 qualifiers – only Auburndale with 13 arrives with more – including: seniors Stephen Pavao at 120, Joe Russo at 152 and Will Allen at 285; juniors Jordan Rivera at 138, Austin Stock at 182, Travis O'Neil at 195 and Corey Humphrey at 220; sophomores Matt Landgraff at 106, Michael McDonald at 113, Andrew Smith at 126, Billy Swift at 160 and Conor Ross at 170.
Springstead, which has produced 62 individual regional champions, is seeking its ninth regional team title.
Rivera, who lost in overtime as a freshman in the regional finals in Avon Park, is the lone returning regional champ from last winter.
The two-time state placer Rivera (37-4 overall, 118-19 lifetime) is attempting to become the 17th Eagle grappler with multiple regional titles.
Landgraff (county-best 43-6), McDonald (41-3, county-best 29 pins) and Ross (41-3) were all regional runners-up as freshmen last winter. Ross and Landgraff both went on to place at states.
Two 2012 state qualifiers – Pavao (32-8) and Russo (37-6) – both placed third in regionals last year.
The Mariner Boulevard crew arrives with momentum fresh from its ninth straight district title and county record 27th district title in Spring Hill.
According to first-year head coach Sal Basile, the week began on the wrong foot with two starters – Pavao and McDonald – missing practice due to another reoccurring round of illness.
"They were both out on Monday," lamented Basile, a two-time state qualifier at Springstead. "They were back by Wednesday. Hopefully by Friday they'll be closer to 100 percent."
On predicting the tourney, "We got a lot of good draws, that doesn't always happen," pointed out Coach Basile. "But so did Lake Gibson. I think the team title will boil down to what happens at 106, 113 and 220.
"On paper, it'll be real close," noted Basile. "If things go our way at 106, 113 and 220, that'll be a big points swing. Otherwise, it'll all come down to a lot of head-to-head matchups."
On Springstead's lucky number, "We have to keep one eye open on the bigger picture (states)," noted Coach Basile. "If we could send nine (to states) I'd say we had a good weekend. If we push 10, then I'd say we had a great weekend."
Like Springstead, Nature Coast arrives on a roll. The Brooksville mat men arrive fresh from their third district runner-up performance in four seasons.
For the fourth consecutive season, the Sharks, who placed third in 2A-II last year, advanced at least 10 grapplers to regionals including: seniors Sean Nguyen at 106 (team-best 37-2), Shane Reeger at 132 (35-11), Brandon Vovan at 160 (37-5), Dylan Savoury at 182 (32-8) and Anthony Siciliano at 285 (11-11); and sophomores Mark Espinosa at 120 (24-21), Joey DeFranco at 126 (6-3), Jeramie Jazikoff at 138 (21-15), Kam Faulkenberry at 145 (16-20) and Adrian Rivera at 152 (23-11)
On Nature Coast's emphasis, "We're shifting gears toward pushing individuals to states," explained ninth-year Shark mentor Mike Lastra. "We came in third last year; we'll probably come in third this year."
According to Lastra, the Sharks' lucky number for states is five.
"Last year was a more seasoned team and we took six," recalled Lastra. "This year, I think we can push five. That all starts with our seniors – they're our leaders in the room. Not that the younger guys don't have a chance. They have the potential, but they also need some things to fall their way in the brackets."
Hernando placed fifth in the seven-team 2A-7 field advancing six to regionals: sophomore Bailey Mosher (22-18) at 113 pounds, sophomore Clint Wilkins (9-23) at 120, junior Brennan Ertl (36-9) at 152, senior Mike Ulloa (19-6) at 160, junior Jesse Gaudin (team-best 34-1) at 220 and senior Canaan Swackard (15-8) at 285.
Gaudin enters as a two-time district champion. Since getting stuck by 2012 1A state placer Justin Fountain of Clay at the Gulf Duals, Gaudin has reeled off 22 wins in a row.
Gaudin is attempting to become the Leopards' 30th lifetime regional champion and first since Daniel Pritz's third straight regional title in 2010.
"We're all healthy," indicated Hernando's first-year head coach David Pritz, a two-time regional champion. "The emphasis is pushing guys to Lakeland. We could get a few through if they'd get their minds right."
On the Leopards' best bets, "On a great weekend, we could get three to states," said Pritz. "Hands down our best bet is Jesse. He's self-motivated. He's one of the few guys I don't have to worry about. (Assistant coach) Brandyn (Kuhn) and I wrestle Jesse in practice. He's a load."
Central enters regionals with five grapplers featuring: junior Austin Mestres (14-8) at 106, senior Josh Marquez (12-11) at 120, junior Jesus Nieves (team-best 27-10) at 145, junior Brandon Brown (18-14) at 182 and senior Taylor Cromwell (16-10) at 220.
Central has seven career individual regional titles. No Bear, however, has earned a regional crown since Bucky Solomon turned the trick in 2001 at Central.
Head coach Joe Felice's Weeki Wachee squad tied for sixth last weekend at Anclote's Class 1A, District 8 Tournament.
More importantly, the Hornets advanced four into regionals: freshman Brandon Smith (39-11) at 106, junior Dante Padilla (team-best 41-11, team-high 24 pins) at 120, freshman Brandon Enoch (18-26) at 126 and Wyatt DeWayne (21-17) at 145.
Padilla is the lone returning regional qualifier. Weeki Wachee finished 27th out of 28 teams last winter as Padilla finished 3-2 with two pins before being eliminated.
"If Dante doesn't make it to states I'll be totally disappointed," explained the two-time Springstead state qualifier Felice. "He's wrestled many of the top 120-pounders in the state. There's no reason why he can't advance."
Standing in Smith's path is No. 1-ranked wrestler in 1A, Jake Brindley of Lake Highland Prep.
"Anything can happen on any given day," explained an optimistic Coach Felice. "But Brindley is as tough as they come."
"Lake Highland Prep only has something like eight guys, but they'll probably win states with those eight kids," lamented Coach Felice. "Pasco dominated our district. They've got three great kids and Fivay has 4-5 super kids. This weekend will be exceptionally tough."