In Year 41 of Hernando County wrestling, first-time achievements have been as common a Florida shower.
For instance, for the first time ever five county mat programs – Springstead, Central, Hernando, Nature Coast and Weeki Wachee – will be represented in this weekend's two-day, Class 1A-2A FHSAA Finals at the Jenkins Arena inside The Lakeland Center.
The 16 assembled local grapplers enter the Polk County venue with a similar goal – who'll become a state champion atop the podium following Saturday night's final exam?
The 49th annual state finals begin at 10 a.m. today for the top 672 grapplers in 1A, 2A and 3A.
Three IBTs (individually bracketed tournaments – one for each classification) will run simultaneously featuring a double-elimination format. There will be two winners and losers rounds on Friday. Action runs until approximately 10 p.m.
Saturday begins with a wrestleback round at 9:30 a.m. followed by exciting semifinals and wrestlebacks. Finals are slated to begin at 5:30 p.m. on three mats.
The top six finalists in each of the 14 weight divisions will earn a medal. Trophies will be awarded to team state champions and team state runners-up.
The county's mat squads are all attempting to rewrite their school's record books.
Last winter, Springstead meandered down uncharted territory – not only capturing its second-ever mat state championship, but securing the county's first-ever state repeat in any sport since athletics were introduced.
A year later, Springstead is on the brink of re-scripting history once again.
Springstead enters states with nine grapplers including: seniors Stephen Pavao at 120 (36-8) and Joe Russo at 152 (41-8), juniors Jordan Rivera at 138 (41-4) and Corey Humphrey at 220 (28-16), and sophomores Matt Landgraff (county-best 46-7), Michael McDonald at 113 (45-3, county-high 32 pins), Andrew Smith at 126 (37-17), Billy Swift at 160 (38-15) and Conor Ross at 170 (44-4).
Six Eagles have previous state experience including: Landgraff, McDonald, Pavao, Russo, Rivera and Ross.
Rivera, a three-time state qualifier, enters as a two-time state placer (finished third twice).
In 2012, Ross was last winter's 2A state runner-up at 170, while Landgraff placed sixth at 106.
Until this winter, no Hernando County mat program has ever captured nine tournaments in one season. This current Eagle squad is tied at eight titles with the 2000-01 Springstead team guided by Hall of Famer Bob Levija and the 2010-11 Springstead team led by Eric Swensen.
There are plenty of reasons, besides six returning state qualifiers, to suggest a Springstead three-peat.
The state tournament is a game of survival and numbers. The more wrestlers any team tows to Lakeland, the greater the likelihood it'll score more points.
Case in point was 2010. Three winters ago, Springstead fell to Oviedo in the 2A-II "Region of Doom" by 13.5 points. More importantly, the Lions towed 10 grapplers to states.
Even though Springstead entered with eight state qualifiers and departed with a county-record five state champs, the Mariner Boulevard crew finished as state runner-up by five agonizing points. The main reason: the Lions were a tad deeper.
Today, of the state's 130 2A programs, Springstead enters Lakeland with the most grapplers in tow, followed closely by two-time state runner-up and three-time 2A-II runner-up Lakeland-Lake Gibson (eight), 2A-IV's respective champ and runner-up Homestead and Boca Raton-Olympic Heights (eight), 2A-III champion Fort-Myers-Riverdale (seven), 2A-I third-placer Gainesville (seven), as well 2A-I's champion and runner-up Tallahassee-Lincoln and Niceville (six).
The Eagles' brutal strength of schedule sits in their favor. Most teams would shy away competing in half of the tournaments the Spring Hill mat men show up at.
Even novice fans understand the Cougar Invitational in Plant City, the Knockout Christmas Classic, the Flagler Invite and Ippolito Tournament are no picnics for anybody who attends.
Against 1A teams including Lake Highland Prep twice, Springstead finished 41-0.
Against the daunting likes of 3A powerhouses like Brandon, Kissimmee-Osceola, Homestead-South Dade, Winter Springs, Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas and Palm Harbor-University (just to name a few) – Springstead has 'struggled' to a 51-10 mark (84 percent).
But versus 2A competition, the Eagles enter states with a combined 107-1 won-lost mark (99.1 percent).
Their lone loss to any Sunshine State 2A squad was to Riverdale by 17.5 points, 136.0-118.5, at Plant City. Interestingly in that Hillsborough County event, two 2012 state qualifiers, senior Stephen Pavao and Joe Russo, did not make the trip due to illness.
"Our strength of schedule is a huge factor in our success," explained first-year Eagle skipper Sal Basile, who served as Swensen's right-hand assist for the past eight seasons. "Obviously, this (states) is why we wrestle who we wrestle.
"Our kids put in the time during the offseason; they wrestle national tournaments, too," described the two-time Springstead state qualifier from 1992-93. "When you wrestle in those huge meets there's mental confidence that comes with it. I think that's why we're able to pull out so many tournaments at this level. Our guys are battled-tested."
On what's most important, "Having an unbeaten record going into states means I haven't done my job," pointed out Coach Basile. "Kids have to be challenged. You learn so much more from a loss than any win.
"Going to Durant, Osceola, Flagler, Ippolito are all challenges," pointed out Coach Basile. "That's why I can't count any of our guys out this weekend. This (states) is what we've worked for all year. The trick is peaking out at this building."
In another ominous note to Springstead opponents, "Knock on wood, we're as healthy as we've been all year," stressed Basile. "This week, nobody missed any practice and everyone is feeling good going in."
On the state draws, "The chances of us getting nine perfect draws wasn't realistic," said Basile. "We got some favorable draws, a lot more than, say, Lake Gibson. They drew a lot more tough matches in the first and second rounds."
On who'll win 2A, "I'm concerned about Riverdale," stressed Coach Basile. "They have three guys (145, 195, 220) who could very likely reach the finals. I think we have to put three in the finals (to win). Our other six guys will make a huge difference. Our nine scoring against Riverdale's seven scoring could be the difference at the end."
On what the key will be, "The first round will be huge," pointed out Basile. "Getting out in front and setting the pace is something we really haven't done this year. Usually we just hang around and hang around and then turn it up.
"We have to wrestle as well as we can. If we get beat, hat's off to them."
Nature Coast does not possess the sheer numbers to impact the final team standings – the Sharks placed sixth last winter – but could have push two of its three grapplers into their first-ever finals.
According to ninth-year Nature Coast head coach Mike Lastra, what Nature Coast lacks in quantity, it retains in quality behind three regional champions: seniors Sean Nguyen at 106 (team-best 41-2), Brandon Vovan at 160 (41-5) and Dylan Savoury at 182 (36-8).
Nguyen is a returning state placer from 2012 (fourth).
Over the past seven seasons no Shark as has ever returned home with a gold medal draped around his neck.
"Going in we have no injuries to speak of and we're ready to roll," said Coach Lastra, a former Central state qualifier. "(Assistant) Coach (Greg) Jarque and I have preached to the kids all week about just going out there and executing. We look at it like we've got three shots at our first state champion."
On the Sharks' mindset, "Nothing is guaranteed," explained Lastra. "Last year, we had four guys lose in the first round; that's on me. I didn't prepare the guys for that first round. Not this year, the first round is the most important.
"I know everyone wants to go 2-0 on Friday – that's our goal," said Lastra. "We'll take care of Saturday when Saturday arrives.
"I like Sean and Brandon's draws," pointed out Coach Lastra. "The experience factor should really help Sean. And Brandon can't come in satisfied for just being there."
On Savoury's draw, "It's not that I don't think he can win, it's more about he's got a much tougher road to get there," noted Lastra. "He's a phenomenal athlete, who is wrestling at the top of his game. He's just got to keep it going."
On who'll win 2A, "To me, Springstead is in the driver's seat," pointed out Lastra. "Everyone focuses on their big dogs, but they've got three silent killers in Smith, Swift and Humphrey."
Last year, Hernando High's county record of having at least one state placer for 21 winters was snapped.
This year, junior Jesse Gaudin (38-1, 25 pins) extended Hernando's county record to 24 straight winters with at least one state qualifier.
Gaudin, the school's 108th state qualifier since 1973, arrives as the school's 30th regional champ riding a personal-best 26-match winning streak.
"I've waited a long time for this," said the 17-year-old Gaudin after regionals. "I came in hungry. I have to stay hungry. I haven't won anything yet. Finishing first here is a big advantage for the state seedings."
Gaudin aims at becoming the school's 14th state champion – and first since Daniel Pritz in 2010.
For the first time since 2002-03 when seniors Sergio Matos and Bucky Solomon reached states, Central will be represented by two teammates at states: senior Josh Marquez at 120 (16-13) and junior Jesus Nieves at 145 (30-11).
The Bears haven't had a state champion since Mike Mallin in 1997 under Alan Solomon.
Junior Dante Padilla (team-best 44-13, team-high 25 pins) at 120 became the first-ever Weeki Wachee grappler to reach states.
Padilla advanced from the 1A-II Tourney at Lakeland-Tenoroc thanks to a fourth-place finish.
2013 HERNANDO COUNTY STATE QUALIFIERS (16)
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
WGT NAME SCH YR. W L PINS
106 Landgraff, Matt# SPG 10th 46* 7 27
106 Nguyen, Sean# NCT 11th 41 2 23
113 McDonald, Michael+ SPG 10th 45 3 32*
120 Pavao, Stephen+ SPG 12th 36 8 26
120 Marquez, Josh CEN 12th 16 13 8
120 Padilla, Dante WW 11th 44 13 25
126 Smith, Andrew SPG 10th 37 17 19
138 Rivera, Jordan## SPG 11th 41 4 25
145 Nieves, Jesus CEN 11th 30 11 12
152 Russo, Joe+ SPG 12th 41 8 28
160 Vovan, Brandon NCT 12th 41 5 22
160 Swift, Billy SPG 10th 38 15 11
170 Ross, Conor# SPG 10th 44 4 26
182 Savoury, Dylan NCT 12th 36 8 19
220 Gaudin, Jesse HER 11th 38 1* 25
220 Humphrey, Corey SPG 11th 28 16 18
## Denotes returning two-time state placer
# Denotes returning state placer
+ Denotes returning state qualifier
* Denotes county leader
All-Time Hernando County State Wrestling Champions (40):
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
NAME SCH YR CLASS WGT
Redman, Sean SPG 2012 2A 145
Ross, Cody SPG 2012 2A 152
Dreggors, John SPG 2012 2A 285
Bliss, Richie SPG 2011 2A 103
Toms, Virgil SPG 2011 2A 130
Soto, Nick SPG 2011 2A 135
Ross, Cody SPG 2011 2A 140
Landgraff, Shawn SPG 2011 2A 152
Bliss, Richie SPG 2010 2A 103
Toms, Virgil SPG 2010 2A 125
Soto, Nick SPG 2010 2A 130
Ross, Cody SPG 2010 2A 135
Cox, Kenny SPG 2010 2A 215
Pritz, Daniel HER 2010 1A 145
Bliss, Richie SPG 2009 2A 103
Swanton, Schuyler SPG 2008 2A 112
Swanton, Schuyler SPG 2007 2A 103
Rotunda, Windham HER 2005 1A 275
Chipoletti, Addison HER 2005 1A 189
Chipoletti, Addison HER 2004 1A 171
Chipoletti, Addison HER 2003 1A 171
Booker, Matt SPG 2001 1A 130
DeCristofaro, Gerard SPG 2001 1A 140
Pritz, Robert HER 2000 1A 140
Stevenson, Jim SPG 2000 2A 125
Smith, John HER 1999 4A 152
Swanton, Dustin SPG 1999 5A 125
Swanton, Dustin SPG 1998 5A 119
Stevenson, John SPG 1998 5A 112
Gant, Richard HER 1997 4A 125
Hill, Corey SPG 1997 5A 145
Mallin, Mike CEN 1997 4A 189
Hill, Corey SPG 1996 5A 145
Gordon, Reppard HER 1995 4A 152
Sang, Omah CEN 1994 3A 171
Deason, Chuck HER 1993 3A 125
Kuhl, Brad HER 1992 3A 135
Lane, John SPG 1991 3A 145
Hudson, Genard HER 1987 3A UNL
Hamilton, Michael HER 1982 3A 185