The quest to extend Hernando County's brilliance on the mats has taken a detour.
Since Springstead captured its school-record and county-record third straight Class 2A state wrestling title last February at the Jenkins Arena, the mat landscape has been altered.
It began with district realignment.
The sport's most dominant aircraft carrier, Brandon High, saw a decrease in its attendance numbers.
As a result, the mighty Hillsborough County program that has reeled off 13 state championships in a row, relocated from 3A back down to 2A.
That move has caused a ripple effect for anyone in 2A, including Springstead.
Now, take into account the newly created "Region of Doom" - 2A-II - where perhaps the four best teams in 2A reside: Brandon, Springstead, three-time state runner-up Lakeland-Lake Gibson and perhaps the finest-ever Tampa-Jesuit team in school history.
SHS did lose three starters from last winter's state three-peat including two-time state qualifiers Stephen Pavao at 120 pounds and Joe Russo at 152, along with 285-pounder Will Allen.
If that wasn't all, during the past two weeks, the Spring Hill mat squad suffered two more casualties.
Two-time state placer Conor Ross suffered a season-ending left knee injury against Land O' Lakes, and will be out for the wrestling season. Compounding matters, 2013 state qualifier Andrew Smith suffered a knee sprain in the preseason classic at Springstead.
Unlike Ross, Smith is expected to recover and return to the Eagles' lineup, possibly as early as the season-opening event Nov. 30, the Forest Invitational in Ocala.
For a talented team with nine returning lettermen, including nine returning starters (not counting Ross), the personnel losses have come at a critical stage.
"Injuries happen every year on every campus on every program," identified SHS' second-year skipper Sal Basile. "It just seems like we're not starting off on a good foot.
"After Ross got hurt, I was angry for a few days, but at this point, there's nothing I can do but focus on the guys who are here and who'll be here after football," said Basile. "Every year, we face adversity and every year we've figured out a way to keep going. It's got to be done. That's kind of where we're at.
"I told the kids there's not another Conor Ross in the room and that it'll take 13 guys to help pick up the slack," Basile added. "The kids are smart. They know what the impact is of losing a guy like Conor. But it's different than losing him right before districts; we've got some time to make adjustments."
Ross' loss would cripple many mat programs. SHS, however, has plenty of firepower on its roster.
The returning starters include: seniors Jordan Rivera, Corey Humphrey, Austin Stock and Travis O'Neil, and juniors Matt Landgraff, Michael McDonald, Robert Holdway, Billy Swift and Smith.
Rivera (45-4 last year) is a defending 2A state champion, three-time state placer and the county's returning Wrestler of the Year.
Swift (42-17, fourth at states) joins Landgraff (49-9) and McDonald (48-5), who both placed fifth, as returning state placers.
Smith (38-19) and Humphrey (29-18) are no slouches as returning state qualifiers.
Additionally, regional qualifiers Stock and O'Neil combined for 35 victories against one of the state's most brutal schedules.
Basile is pinning the Eagles' hopes on several new faces including: freshmen Richie Rivera at 106, Alex Stoakes and Travis Williams at 138, and Daniel Erwin at 285, juniors Jonathan Voisinet at 132 and Quentin D' Alessandro at 126, and senior Vincent Buonanno at 170.
Buonanno, who was academically ineligible, has dramatically raised his grades to compete at the varsity level this winter.
On Erwin, "He's a pretty mature 14-year-old," described Basile. "He's green, but he could really help us."
Basile has been impressed by the work ethic provided by Stoakes, Williams and D'Alessandro.
"Those kids have all bought in," he said. "They don't ever miss a minute of practice or any workouts."
On the eve of the season opener, injuries and depth serve as the main concerns for Basile.
"It's déjà vu as far as depth - we don't have much after our starters," he pointed out. "There's a considerable drop-off level after our first-teamers - it's there in black and white. A prime example is Ross. Can we fill the weight class? Sure. But there isn't another Conor Ross around.
"At this point, we're trying to build the JV numbers. We're fortunate that in another year, we'll get a dose of youth program kids coming in. But that doesn't help us this year."
Springstead's schedule over the past nine years under the Eric Swensen-Basile regime has been nothing short of a gauntlet.
That approach has not changed in 2013-14 with the Kiwanis Invitational at Brooksville, the 6-Way Combs Duals II featuring Lowndes County from Georgia and Jesuit, the always-tough Cougar Invitational at Plant City-Durant, the loaded Knockout Christmas Classic at Kissimmee-Osceola, Springstead's own Foster's Roofing Invitational, the Billy Saylor Invitational at Suwannee and an annual trip to the Ippolito Invitational at Brandon.
This winter, the Eagle program is seeking its 10th straight district title in a newly created six-team District 5 field featuring: Belleview, Ocala-Vanguard, Ocala-Lake Weir, Lecanto, Citrus and Springstead.
Springstead will be attempting to collect its county record 28th district championship on Feb. 6 in Spring Hill.
"The district is very different," pointed out Basile. "There's a kind of an unknown factor there. At this point it's us and Citrus, but there's no Nature Coast in the picture. At this point, I couldn't tell you who's the best of the other teams involved. We haven't competed against most of those other teams, so we really don't know what they'll bring to the table."
After districts, SHS will pack for the Region II meat grinder at Brandon.
"Potentially the top four teams in 2A could all be from the same region," said Basile. "There are guys that won't make it (to states), who if they competed in any other regional make Lakeland (for states) - that's how tough it'll be."
Basile has taken a realistic approach to the season, saying, "We're trying to build depth in our quality of wrestling. Our main goal is to be able to compete with Brandon. We don't have the team to beat them."
???After impressive back-to-back top-six finishes in the 2A state finals at The Lakeland Center, Nature Coast Technical's 10th season begins within the comfortable confines of 1A.
The Sharks finished 24-9 last winter, but graduated six talented seniors including the school's first-ever state champion Brandon Vovan, state runner-up Sean Nguyen and state placer Dylan Savoury (sixth). Vovan and Nguyen are competing at the collegiate level this year.
Other key starters who graduated include: Shane Reeger and Anthony Siciliano.
Despite the personnel losses, 10th-year skipper Mike Lastra isn't crying the blues. He's got 13 returning lettermen, including six starters: juniors Raivyn Alicea, Mark Espinosa, Jeremy Jazicoff, Frank Ritchie and Adrian Rivera, along with sophomore Anthony Contegiacomo.
According to Lastra, look for junior Le'Shaun Gray to compete for a starting slot.
"This group is starting to look and act as a team," pointed out Lastra, who is 128-111-0 lifetime at NCT. "They're building camaraderie amongst themselves."
On Lastra's main concern, he said, "After looking at the guys we've lost, it's the lack of a true leader. We need these kids to set the tone."
On replacing three state placers, "That's hard to answer," explained Lastra. "How do we replace the kids that have given us so much? We hope that the excellence those kids brought to our program rubbed off on some the others we have now. We want to find out who wants to be the next Vovan, the next Nguyen."
Lastra's team goal calls for "a two-year plan. We have an odd situation with no seniors and no freshmen," he said. "It's not a bad situation. Our goal is to win a district title for the first time and then shoot for a state title next year."
The Sharks are members of the newly formed 10-team 1A-6 featuring: Anclote, Central, Gulf, Ridgewood, Hernando, Hudson, Pasco, Wesley Chapel and Weeki Wachee.
"I like the new district, it'll be competitive," emphasized Lastra. "I think we have a legit shot at winning this."
In the newly formed 1A-II, look for the Sharks to compete with the likes of Crystal River, perennially tough Green Cove Springs-Clay and defending 1A state champion Orlando-Lake Highland Prep.
"We go from competing in the toughest 2A region to competing in the toughest 1A region," admitted Lastra. "After competing like we did in 2A, we should hold our own in 1A."
Hernando opens its county-high 41st mat season seeking to improve on a 8-24 mark of a year ago.
The Leopards graduated three seniors, but no one who won more than 13 matches.
Second-year head coach David Pritz retains 10 returning lettermen including seven starters: seniors Jesse Gaudin and Brennan Ertl, juniors Bailey Mosher, Clint Wilkins, Austin Webber and Tyler Ray, and sophomore Johnny Fouts.
Gaudin is the lone returning state qualifier. Gaudin placed third at 220 pounds following an outstanding 43-2 campaign.
"We expect nothing less than a state championship from Jesse," stated Pritz. "He's naturally gifted. He's not a guy that I have to spend any time motivating; he motivates everyone else with his actions."
Ertl was a regional qualifier and looks to surpass his personal-best 38-11 campaign.
"Brennan always looks good in practice," insisted Pritz. "He's really an amazing athlete. He has to translate what he does in practice to the matches. While Jesse leads our team by example, Brennan is our vocal leader."
According to Pritz, Mosher is "one of those guys that fly under the radar. He's wrestled all summer with us. He's ready for a big season."
Pritz is encouraged with his current 32-man roster.
"Every kid we've got this year has a year's experience under the belt," noted Pritz. "That's a big difference at the varsity level. These guys got some mat time, now they need more."
Pritz points to Fouts and Webber as two Leopards about to break out.
Senior Ricky Swain, who went 24-17 in 2011-12, was injured (ACL) and missed all of last season. He's 100 percent healthy and ready to go.
HHS will have trouble filling 106, 132 and 285.
"My greatest concern is keeping guys healthy," said Pritz.
According to Pritz, for Hernando to have a successful season, "Our guys need to wrestle up to their standards. My goal is to push three or more guys to states."
???Central's finest wrestler last winter, Jesus Nieves (30-13 overall) at 145, transferred to Weeki Wachee.
Last winter, the Hornets finished 15-20 and were represented for the first time in states by Dante Padilla (44-15).
It doesn't matter that neither Padilla nor Nieves won a match in at states. That pair will act as guides for the fledgling third-year program that returns eight lettermen, including six starters.
Also back in the fold for third-year skipper Joe Felice is sophomores Brandon Smith at 106 (40-13), Brandon Enoch at 132 (18-28), Nathaniel DeJesus at 152 (11-29), and seniors Brandon Clifton at 220 (17-7) and Anthony Vines at 285 (21-13).
Prior to this weekend's second 16-team Weeki Wachee Duals Tournament, Felice said, "Last year it seemed like we had a lot of individuals out there, this time we're beginning to get some great team chemistry.
"The biggest concern," explained Felice, "is we need younger kids. The seniors can't win on their own. We still have a problem filling the holes in our lineup."
The Hornets expect to open the season with 10-11 weight classes filled. At press time, according to Felice, a former Springstead state qualifier, WWHS has no one at 113, 170 or 182.
As far the 1A-7 Tourney at Hernando, "It's a tough district," said Felice. "Gulf, Pasco, Nature Coast have all got horses. Right now, we're a middle-of-the-road district team. We do have some guys who can make some noise. But then we go into a brutal regional. There are no gimmes in our road to states."
Under first-year mentor Tim Brown, Central finished 2-13 overall last season.
Despite a tiny 11-man roster, CHS sent two members to states: Nieves and Josh Marquez.
Both are gone this season.
According to CHS Athletic Director Al Sorrentino, the Bears features an eight-member roster featuring: Selena Brackrog, Joe Brennan, Brandon Brown, Joy Carswell, Adam Keister, Austin Mestres, Steven Morales and Justin Rivera.
Of this group, four are returning starters: Brown, Keister, Mestres and Morales.
Brandon Brown, a senior and the coach's son, retains the finest record of any of the returning Bears behind a 21-17 mark.
Coach Brown did not respond for a comment on this story.