PLANT CITY - The unsung Class 3A, District 1 Bunnell-Flagler Palm Coast Bulldogs took a page from the king of comebacks - Springstead.
Two weekends ago, Springstead staved off a mighty upset bid by loaded Tampa-Jesuit by winning its last two bouts to repeat as Combs Duals champions, 36-33.
On Saturday night, the short-handed Eagles trailed the 'Dawgs by 10.5 points entering the 18th annual Cougar Invitational finals at Plant City-Durant High.
Prior to the round, SHS' second-year skipper Sal Basile was convinced the Eagles "needed to win five" of their tourney-high six finals bouts to slip past FPC.
After four Eagles followed with gold-medal efforts, the Bulldogs were down to their last grappler.
With SHS trailing by a half a point against a high noon-type backdrop, third-seeded FPC senior Justin Boyle at 170 pounds squared off against Springstead's top-seeded and 2013 state placer, junior Billy Swift.
Swift had solved Boyle in the St. Cloud Bulldog Brawl II semifinals last winter in Osceola County, 5-2.
This time, Boyle snapped a 4-all deadlock with a critical two-point takedown with less than a second remaining to seal a pulsating 6-4 decision.
The huge swing-match upset gave the Bulldogs four points to stave off a final round-charge by the 2009 Cougar Invitational champion Eagles, 207.5-203.0.
Even when Swift lost, the Eagles weren't completely out of it.
Bayside senior Tomelle One, the tourney's top seed at 285, was heavily favored to deflate Springstead senior Travis O'Neil.
O'Neil, in his first-ever IBT (individually bracketed tourney) final, had to win by a major decision (eight points or more) for the Eagles to overtake the Bulldogs.
Alas, One prevailed in a plodding tactical match, 4-2.
The three-time defending 2A state champions from Spring Hill - who have captured the Rotary Invitational in Flagler County a tourney-record five straight times - saw this season's three-tourney win skein snapped.
In the smallest Cougar Invite in over a decade, the big difference was the 14-member Bulldogs returning home with a meet-high 12 placers, including three individual champs.
"Things didn't go our way," declared Coach Basile. "Flagler came in hungry. They had an opportunity to beat us. Those guys have been down quite a while, but they've got a good coach, who's turning things around.
"Give Flagler credit they came in with 14 guys and 12 placed. We came in with 12 guys and nine placed - that's a huge difference," noted Basile, last year's Florida Dairy Farmer's 2A Coach of the Year. "It was a combination of they wrestled well and they caught some breaks.
"We've been in that position a lot over the last few years. It wasn't like we didn't wrestle well."
On the plus side, the nine SHS placers were the most since 2009 at Durant.
While Springstead made its eighth trip to the Cougar Invite, Hernando made its first and placed ninth overall with 74.0 points.
The Leopards had three placers, including two champions: seniors Brennan Ertl at 160 and Jesse Gaudin at 220.
Instead of gold medals, each of the 14 weight class champions received a Cougar Invitational statuette.
The Springstead champions included juniors Matt Landgraff at 106, Michael McDonald at 120, Andrew Smith at 132 and senior Jordan Rivera at 145.
The four SHS champions were the most ever in this event, surpassing 2010's three.
Landgraff went 3-0 with two pins to improve to 16-0.
After a first-round bye, the top-seeded and two-time state placer pinned Lutz-Steinbrenner's Brett Behers (1:25) and Flagler Palm Coast's Rasheed Cruz (1:11) to reach the tourney finals against second-seeded Tampa Prep sophomore Aaron Mills.
Landgraff, who toppled Mills, 9-2, in the Wildcat Invitational finals at Ocala-Forest, never trailed en route to a 7-3 decision.
The win left Landgraff at 98-21 lifetime - two victories shy of becoming the Eagles' 24th member of the 100-win fraternity.
McDonald finished 4-0, highlighted by three pins.
The two-time state qualifier and 2013 state placer folded his first three opponents: Sarasota-Riverview frosh Jess Williams (0:21), Hernando junior Bailey Mosher (0:45), and Flagler Palm Coast's junior Jake Koschiner (5:36). Koschiner was a 2013 state qualifier.
In the finals, McDonald (16-0) twisted Tampa Prep eighth-grader Anthony Artalona into a 14-6 major decision and his second straight gold medal at Durant. McDonald had decisioned Artalona, the 2013 1A state placer, in the Wildcat Invite finals, 8-5.
The four wins allowed McDonald to tie Landgraff and Smith for the team lead.
The performance pushed McDonald's career mark to 100-16 lifetime - making him the 23rd Eagle in 34 seasons to achieve the historic century plateau.
"Tonight's win was big for the team," explained the 17-year-old McDonald. "This (100 wins) was a goal of mine. When I'm done, I want to set the county record for most wins (186 by Springstead's Cody Ross)."
On his finals victory, "This is the best I've ever wrestled against Artalona and tonight was the best he's ever wrestled me," detailed McDonald, the Eagles' team captain. "I just feel like I'm getting better and better. Getting that first double-leg (takedown) just set the tone."
On the Eagles' efforts, "By now, we know who the big guns on the team are," he said. "And those guys did what they have to do, but our younger guys didn't step up."
Like McDonald, Smith also finished 4-0 with three pins.
Since losing in the last five seconds at the Kiwanis Invite to Indian Rocks Christian's Michael Gingras, 2-1, Smith (16-2) has quietly responded with a nine-match win skein - his longest-ever streak.
Smith opened this weekend's tourney by pinning Tampa-Robinson's DeShawn Weathers (1:02), Tampa-King's Marcus Karlin (0:51) and Hillsborough's Jeremy Gardner (2:57).
In the finals, the second-seeded Smith solved unseeded Durant senior Reagan Haley, 8-2.
"The Durant kid wrestled a funky style," described the 16-year-old Smith. "He kept trying to hit a Peterson on me."
Smith had plenty of motivation.
"Last year I went 0-2 here," lamented Smith. "Even though there wasn't as many good teams here as in the past, it was still nice to win."
On the team, "In the end, it all comes down to who wants it more," stressed Smith.
Rivera was the Eagles' third first-time Cougar Invite champion.
The four-year starter finished 4-0 with one pin to extend his current winning streak (dating back to last season) to 32.
The Eagles' 26th state champion opened the event by pinning Palm Bay-Bayside's Rayshaad Warren (0:27), stuffing Flagler Palm Coast's Eric Rosso (14-3) and bopping Durant's Kevin Clifford (13-2).
In the tourney finals, the top-seeded Rivera twisted second-seeded Robinson senior Kionte Crocker into a 13-2 major decision. Crocker was a 2013 1A state qualifier.
With the win, Rivera (138-19 lifetime) leapfrogged past Anthony DeCristofaro (134 wins) into eighth place all-time in career wins at SHS.
Though the Eagles fell at the wire to Flagler Palm Coast, Rivera found a silver lining, "Billy (Swift) wrestled his butt off and Andrew (Smith) was an animal," described Rivera. "Had Travis (O'Neil) somehow won I would have kissed him on the mouth. He had a great tournament.
"Knowing Sal (Basile) when we get to the room on Monday, he'll start to straighten things out. On this team, we can't afford guys going 0-2; you can't win tournaments that way. OK, we lost. But it's not the end of the world."
Ertl and Gaudin returned home as first-time Cougar Invite gold medalists.
The fourth-seeded Ertl (24-3 this winter) turned heads by capturing his first-ever IBT gold medallion in his 15th attempt.
After a first-round bye, Ertl solved Steinbrenner's Tommy Keith (14-7) before upsetting top-seeded Hillsborough senior Jesus Bejarano (9-6).
In his first-ever final bouts of his prep career, Ertl stuck unseeded Valrico-Bloomingdale senior Cody Walsh (2:32).
He'll enter the Jan. 3-4 24th Springstead Invitational with momentum. He's won 14-of-15 matches. He'll arrive 99-47 - just one win shy of becoming Hernando's 20th member of the 100-win club in 42 seasons.
"I told myself 'Today's the day,'" said the 17-year-old Ertl on his chance to earn his first gold medal. "The coaches killed us in practice this week. Because of it, me and Jesse (Gaudin) both performed a lot better than at Belleview (the previous week).
"Today was about persistence. I just tried to push the pace," indicated Ertl. "Getting first is huge. I have to dedicate this win to my mom; she's been so supportive."
Gaudin finished 4-0 behind three pins to climb to 22-1 overall.
As the top seed, Gaudin flattened his first three opponents - Durant's Cody Johns (1:14), Bayside's Tyler Partin (1:30) and Tampa-Riverview's Clarence Thomas (3:02).
In the finals, Gaudin solved second-seeded Robinson senior Kendonte Nichols (4-2). Nichols was a 2013 1A state placer (fifth).
"This (win) was another steppingstone toward states," admitted the 17-year-old Gaudin. "Getting a loss last week (to Sarasota's Tobias Baler, 13-7) was tough to swallow. But I'd rather lose now than later.
"I realize I have a lot to accomplish. Right now, things are coming together," added Gaudin.
At Durant, Gaudin leapt over Billy and Charley Combs into 10th place on the HHS all-time wins list at 119-17.
With five more wins, Gaudin will tie Billy Woods (1998-02) in career victories (124).
Final 18th Cougar Invitational Team Standings
PL. TEAM CLASS PTS
1. Bunnell-Flagler Palm Coast (FPC) 3A-1 207.5
2. Springstead (SPG) 2A-5 203.0
3. Tampa-Riverview (TRIV) 3A-8 172.5
4. Tampa-Robinson (ROB) 2A-8 161.0
5. Hillsborough (HILL) 2A-8 142.0
6. Plant City-Durant (DUR) 3A-8 116.0
7. Palm Bay-Bayside (BAY) 2A-13 91.0
8. Lutz-Steinbrennner (STE) 3A-7 87.0
9. Hernando (HER) 1A-6 74.0
10. Tampa Prep (PREP) 1A-10 68.5
11. Tampa-King (KING) 2A-7 59.0
12. Jupiter Christian (JUPC) 1A-13 50.5
13. Sarasota Military Academy (SMA) 1A-11 47.5
14. Valrico-Bloomingdale (BLOM) 3A-8 47.0
15. Tampa-Plant (PLT) 3A-6 39.0
16. Miami-Belen Jesuit (BEL) 2A-16 34.0
17. Sarasota-Riverview (SRIV) 3A-8 24.0
18th Cougar Invitational Finals Results
106 - Matt Landgraff (SPG) dec. Aaron Mills (TP), 7-3.
113 - Julian Ramirez (BEL) pin Jose Munoz (ROB), 1:28.
120 - Michael McDonald (SPG) major dec. Anthony Artalona (TP), 14-6.
126 - Alfred Shavers (FPC) dec. Michael Parker (TRIV), 8-3.
132 - Andrew Smith (SPG) dec. Reagan Haley (DUR), 8-2.
138 - Maia Kaz (FPC) dec. Cordell Nunn (HILL), 3-1 (OT).
145 - Jordan Rivera (SPG) major dec. Kionte Crocker (ROB), 13-2.
152 - Tag Wilbur (JUPC) dec. Jackson Trivett (FPC), 10-5.
160 - Brennan Ertl (HER) pin Cody Walsh (BLOM), 2:32.
170 - Justin Boyle (FPC) dec. Billy Swift (SPG), 6-4.
182 - Luis Peguero (ROB) major dec. Darius Wilson (HILL), 9-1.
195 - Connor Barrick (TRIV) dec. Alex Rubio (DUR), 1-0.
220 - Jesse Gaudin (HER) dec. Kionte Nichols (ROB), 4-2.
285 - Tomelle One (BAY) dec. Travis O'Neil (SPG), 4-2.
18th Cougar Invitational Consolation Finals
106 - Rasheed Cruz (FPC) pin Antonio Turner (ROB), 2:00.
113 - Jacob West (HILL) pin Broderick Kennedy (SRIV), 4:16.
120 - Austin Haley (DUR) dec. Jake Kosachiner (FPC), 10-5.
126 - Marcus Mosley (KING) dec. Jermaine Rivera (ROB), 13-11.
132 - Jeremy Gardner (HILL) dec. Evyn Insalaco (FPC), 4-3.
138 - Johnny Raich (JUPC) dec. Tony Hernandez (TRIV), 7-4.
145 - Will Verastagui (STE) dec. Kevin Clifford (DUR), 8-6.
152 - Connor Steinfeld (SMA) dec. Jason Huertas (TRIV), 7-1.
160 - Jesus Bejarano (HILL) dec. Kory Bryl (FPC), 3-2.
170 - Parker Wadman (TRIV) dec. Patrick Merkel (PLT), 8-3.
182 - Cody Craven (DUR) dec. Kyheem Campbell (KING), 6-5.
195 - Ernesto Rivera (PLT) pin Christian Flores (HILL), 2:02.
220 - Corey Humphrey (SPG) pin Clarence Thomas (TRIV), 2:40.
285 - Jacob Wyre (ROB) pin Kyle Rodriguez (TRIV), 4:48.
Cougar Invitational Outstanding Lightweight Wrestler Award - Julian Ramirez, Miami-Belen Jesuit.
Cougar Invitational Outstanding Heavyweight Wrestler Award - Luis Peguero, Tampa-Robinson.
Cougar Invitational Most Pins, Least Amt. of Time - Corey Humphrey, Springstead
Springstead Results at 18th Cougar Invitational
WGT NAME W L PINS PL
106 Landgraff, Matt 3 0 2 1st
113 Rivera, Richie 3 2 2 5th
120 McDonald, Michael 4 0 3 1st
126 D'Alessandro, Quentin 1 2 0 -
132 Smith, Andrew 4 0 3 1st
138 Voisinet, Jonathan 1 2 0 -
145 Rivera, Jordan 4 0 1 1st
152 Holdway, Robert 0 2 0 -
160 Buonanno, Vincent 4 2 1 5th
170 Swift, Billy 2 1 2 2nd
220 Humphrey, Corey 4 1 4 3rd
285 O'Neil, Travis 2 1 1 2nd
TOTALS (12) 32 13 19
Hernando Results at 18th Cougar Invitational
WGT NAME W L PINS PL
106 Watson, Jordan 1 2 0 -
113 Hester, Matt 0 2 0 -
120 Mosher, Bailey 2 2 0 -
126 Watson, Austin 2 2 1 -
132 Fouts, Johnny 0 2 0 -
138 Ertl, Andrew 0 2 0 -
145 Swain, Ricky 0 2 0 -
152 Richards, Kyle 0 2 0 -
160 Ertl, Brennan 3 0 1 1st
182 Terkevich, Abel 0 2 0 -
195 Whitaker, Lane 2 3 2 6th
220 Gaudin, Jesse 4 0 3 1st
TOTALS (12) 14 21 7