Showtime has arrived in Year 42 of Hernando County wrestling.
For the second straight winter, each of Hernando County's five mat programs - Springstead, Central, Hernando and Nature Coast Technical and Weeki Wachee - will be represented in this weekend's two-day litmus test labeled the 50th annual FHSAA Finals at The Lakeland Center's Jenkins Arena.
The 15 assembled local grapplers enter the Polk County venue with a similar focus: they're all transfixed on adding to the county's 43 state champions.
The grueling, double-elimination IBT (individually bracketed tournament) begins at 10 a.m. today for all three classifications.
Competition will run simultaneously across 10 mats. There will be two winner's and loser's rounds on Friday. Action runs until approximately 10 p.m.
Saturday begins with a wrestleback round at 9:30 a.m. followed by 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 the team state champions and team runners-up.
Only one local team, Springstead, will be competing in Class 2A.
Realistically, the three-time defending 2A state champion's terrific title run will be over in less than 36 hours.
The obvious reason is the presence Brandon High. BHS' drop in enrollment precipitated a drop to 2A.
The Hillsborough County-based Eagles finished 40-0 in dual meets and have captured 11-of- 11 tournaments this winter.
Coach Russ Cozart's Brandon squad is coming off its 40th straight district title and its 25th straight regional crown.
BHS is an overwhelming favorite - as the state's top mat program - to extend its record of 13 straight state titles. The Eagles have collected a record 24 crowns.
Though there's likely no suspense on who'll hoist the first-place trophy, plenty of intrigue exists on who will place second.
SHS hasn't finished outside of second place at states since 2009 - the last year it went head-to-head with Brandon.
For a 10th straight winter, the Spring Hill mat men will be represented by a county-high six-man contingency featuring: seniors Jordan Rivera at 145 pounds, Vincent Buonanno at 160 and Corey Humphrey at 195, along with juniors Michael McDonald at 120, Andrew Smith at 132 and Billy Swift at 170.
One huge boost, all the Mariner Boulevard mat men except the first-year Buonanno have reached this elite level before.
Rivera, McDonald and Swift are returning 2013 state placers.
Springstead's head coach Sal Basile, a two-time state qualifier and 1993 state placer, admitted his Eagles have modified their team stance.
"Our goal is to push as many guys as we can into the finals," explained Basile. "Is there a chance to take second? Of course. Just like I've said before you never know what will happen in a big building."
As far as chasing down a second-place trophy, "We know Jesuit and Jensen Beach are bringing nine guys and that's a lot," noted Basile. "I'm not going to beat myself up over the team score. We'll see how many we push into the finals on Saturday and worry about the rest."
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Springstead is led by three-time state placer and defending 2013 state champion Jordan Rivera.
Rivera (34-4, 20 pins this winter) has already tied one county record with his fourth straight state appearance.
The rare four-year starter is red-hot capturing 18-of-19 matches and arrives 159-23 lifetime.
Rivera (13-2 at states) is attempting to surpass the county record for most wins at states (15) held jointly by Corey Hill (1994-97) and Cody Ross (2009-12).
Only two Eagles, Hill and Ross, have ever placed four times at states. Rivera is attempting to tie that elusive mark, as well.
"If Jordan Rivera ever loses a match it's because he beats himself," described Coach Basile. "He beat himself up after losing last Saturday night (in a bid for his third regional title, losing to Brandon's Troy Joyce, 3-2).
"In that match, Jordan had the only takedown, the other kid had two escapes and received a penalty point," recalled Basile. "I ask what's more important, beating Joyce for the regional title or winning states? The answer is clear. He if relaxes just a little bit, he'll be just fine."
McDonald (40-0, 30 pins this winter; 124-16 lifetime with 87 pins) arrives as a three-time state qualifier, riding a 41-match win skein. Though he placed fifth last winter, he's been a .500 grappler at states (4-4).
"Mickey is Mickey," detailed Coach Basile. "No matter what he's done this year, he's got to go out and earn it this weekend; no one is going to hand him anything.
"He's been hungry all season. He's elevated his game so much," added Basile of McDonald's chances earn the Eagles' 27th state championship. "And his side of the bracket looks good. His goal all year has been to win a state title."
Similar to Rivera, Smith (40-7, 28 pins) had captured 20-of-21 matches before losing to Brandon's talented Dylan Lucas in the 2A-Region II finals last Saturday, 11-2.
Smith (78-27 lifetime) was defused last winter going 1-2 at states in Lakeland.
"Andrew has as good a shot as anyone to reach the finals," stressed Coach Basile. "It's really a matter of who shows up. There's a huge difference in the first-year guy who wrestled at states last year and the current version. He's been there and done that and the mindset is so much different.
"You'll see a more mature and seasoned Andrew on the mats this weekend."
Last winter, Swift was pinned in his first-ever match at states. He didn't mentally crumble responding with four straight wins.
The first-year Eagle starter dropped a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in four overtimes to Niceville senior Taylor Bartleson denying him third place.
This time, Swift (35-8 this year, 78-25 lifetime) has alternated between 160-170, competing against some of the state's best.
"Billy's draw is pretty good," noted Basile. "So far his journey has been pretty cut and dry. To me, he's quite a bit hungrier than he was last year.
"Billy believes he can win a state championship. If he believes he can, so do I," added Basile. "To do that he'll have to take care of business on Friday first."
Through two previous seasons, Humphrey (1-2 at states) totaled 38 wins. He's arriving in Lakeland behind a personal-best 37-7 slate this winter.
Consistency has been Humphrey's calling card. Humphrey, like McDonald and Rivera, has placed in every tournament he's participated in this winter.
"In Corey's brackets, (Tampa-Jesuit's Nick) Mosco is on one side and (Jensen Beach's Chris) Favoroso is on the other," pointed out Coach Basile. "He knows he'll have to step up to reach the finals.
"On the bright side, Corey is wrestling so much better than he did last year," added Basile. "He's climbing the different levels. Is he capable of beating a Favoroso or Mosco? Sure. But he's got to step up his game."
There's no doubt that the toughest draw belongs to Buonanno (27-14). The 160 bracket might be the deepest.
"Vincent has wrestled his butt off to get this far," noted Basile. "Funny things can happen. I'm really anxious to see how he handles wrestling in Lakeland for the first time. With so many good kids at 160, there are a lot of questions with his bracket."
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The 1A team standings are expected to boil down to Fort Lauderdale-Cardinal Gibbons, Orlando-Lake Highland Prep and Green Cove Springs-Clay.
Nature Coast, which finished in the top six each of last two years in 2A, returns with three first-time state qualifiers: juniors Mark Espinosa (45-19) at 126 and Le'Shaun Gray (35-13) at 170, along with sophomore Anthony Contegiacomo (51-12) at 220.
"States is an eye-opening experience for a lot of guys," explained NCT's 10th-year skipper Mike Lastra, a former Central state qualifier. "You can almost expect a deer-in-the-headlights experience for these guys. Sometimes the guys worry too much about everything else but wrestling."
Lastra contends this is a different situation for his team at states with all underclassmen.
"We've never had an underclassman at the podium at states," said Lastra. "We've had someone on the podium for the past four years; that's our goal."
Of his grappler's draws, Lastra believes Contegiacomo has the best chance of placing.
"I think there's a lot of traffic on (Hernando Jesse) Gaudin's side of the bracket," pointed out Lastra. "I like Anthony's draw. But he's still got to wrestle."
Hernando High will be represented by a 2013 state placer, senior Jesse Gaudin at 220 (third in 2013), along with a first-time state participant, senior Brennan Ertl (39-11 this winter, 114-55 lifetime) at 160.
"Ertl's side of the bracket is pretty wide open," explained HHS' second-year mentor David Pritz, a three-time state placer. "If he shows up like he can, he's as good as anybody out there."
On what obstacles lie ahead, "Mentally, Ertl has had a lot of firsts this year; he's cleared a bunch of obstacles," noted Pritz. "By reaching states, the pressure is off. If Ertl wins his first two matches, look out."
Despite a difficult draw, Gaudin (45-3 this winter, 142-19 lifetime) is expected to compete for the Leopards' 13th career gold medal.
"Jesse is on the tougher side of the bracket," declared Coach Pritz. "He's still the best 220-pounder in 1A. He's been super consistent all season long. We get the same great effort from Jesse every weekend.
"In the room, we call him state champion," noted Pritz. "Because that's what he'll be."
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Third-year Weeki Wachee mentor Joe Felice is bringing a school-record three Hornets to states featuring seniors Anthony Vines at 285, Jesus Nieves at 132 and Dante Padilla at 120. WWHS is seeking its first state placer
Both Nieves and Padilla are returning state qualifiers. Nieves went 0-2 with Central last winter before transferring while Padilla finished 0-2.
Thanks to a second-place regional finish, Vines (county-record 53-5, county-record 39 pins) may have the received the Hornets' best draw.
"I like Anthony's draw," detailed Coach Felice a 1993 state qualifier at Springstead. "The state's top two ranked kids are on the other side of the bracket. Anthony can't be content on just making states. Too many guys are satisfied by just making states."'
WWHS' pair of fourth-place regional finishers, Padilla (51-9) and Nieves (49-8), both received much tougher draws.
"When you place fourth at regional, it makes things a little tougher," pointed out Coach Felice. "Dante's side of the bracket is loaded. Winning that first match is the key. After that, it's a tough road ahead.
"Mentally, Nieves really needs to win that first match," said Felice. "Beating a regional champion will do wonders for his confidence. It'll also make things a lot easier for him at states. If he wants to wrestle, he can compete with anyone out there."
Another first-time state qualifier is Central senior Brandon Brown (22-3) at 182.
The Bears haven't crowned a state champion since Mike Mallin in 1997.
At a Glance
What - 50th annual wrestling FHSAA Finals
Who - Springstead will be competing in the Class 2A Tournament. Central, Hernando, Nature Coast Technical and Weeki Wachee will be competing in the 1A state finals.
Where - The Lakeland Center, 701 West Lime St., Lakeland.
When - Today's action begins at 10 a.m. and runs until approximately 10 p.m. Saturday begins with a wrestleback round at 9:30 a.m. followed by semifinals and wrestlebacks. Finals slated to begin at 5:30 p.m. on three mats.
At Stake - Top six finalists in each of the 14 weight divisions earns a medal. Trophies will be awarded to the team state champions and runners-up.
2013-14 HERNANDO COUNTY STATE QUALIFIERS (15)
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
WGT NAME SCH YR. W L PINS
120 McDonald, Michael=^ SPG 11th 40 0* 30
120 Padilla, Dante+^ WW 11th 51 9 27
126 Espinosa, Mark^ NCT 11th 45 19 19
132 Nieves, Jesus+^ WW 11th 49 8 30
132 Smith, Andrew+^ SPG 11th 40 7 28
145 Rivera, Jordan$###^ SPG 11th 34 4 20
160 Ertl, Brennan^ HER 12th 39 11 14
160 Buonanno, Vincent^ SPG 12th 27 14 10
170 Swift, Billy^= SPG 11th 35 8 14
170 Gray, Le'Shaun^ NCT 11th 35 13 11
182 Brown, Brandon^ CEN 12th 22 3 9
195 Humphrey, Corey+^ SPG 12th 37 7 23
220 Gaudin, Jesse +^ HER 12th 45 3 29
220 Contegiacomo, Anthony^ NCT 10th 51 12 30
285 Vines, Anthony^ WW 12th 53* 5 39*
$ Denotes defending state champion.
### Denotes three-time state placer.
* Denotes county leader.
^ Denotes 2014 state qualifier
= Denotes 2013 state placer.
+ Denotes 2013 state qualifier.
All-Time Hernando County Wrestling State Champions (42):
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
NAME SCH YR CLAS WGT
Vovan, Brandon NCT 2013 2A 160
Rivera, Jordan SPG 2013 2A 138
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