The 11-week wrestling appetizer has been served.
Week 12 of Season 42 of Hernando County wrestling gives way to the main course: the FHSAA three-week state series.
An estimated 55 county grapplers - representing the county's five programs: Central, Hernando, Nature Coast Technical, Springstead and Weeki Wachee - are expected to compete Saturday in the Class 2A, District 5 or 1A-6 Tournament.
With this year's district realignments, Springstead will host the six-team 2A-5 event in Spring Hill while Central, Nature Coast and Weeki Wachee will take part in the 10-team 1A-6 Tourney at Hernando High's Michael A. Imhoff Gymnasium.
In 2A-5, action is expected to begin along two mats at 11 a.m., while 1A-6 is set to start along three mats at 10:30 a.m.
Look for the finals to begin at approximately 3-4 p.m. at both sites.
The stakes are enormous. Any grappler that finishes in the top four of any of the 14 weight classifications will receive a ribbon and advance to next weekend's two-day regional round - or head home.
Only the top four placers in Feb. 8's regionals advance to the Jenkins Arena at The Lakeland Center for the state's ultimate litmus test - the 50th annual FHSAA Finals set for Feb. 14-15.
Since Brandon is not located in either Hernando, Pasco or Citrus counties, the North Suncoast's most dominant mat program - Springstead - is on the verge of setting county history.
The three-time defending 2A state champions, however, are living on borrowed time.
Due to Brandon's recent enrollment reduction, the Hillsborough County-based Eagles have dropped down to 2A.
Brandon will be seeking its 14th straight state championship and its 25th state team crown in three weekends in Polk County.
The Spring Hill mat men must enjoy this weekend before trekking to Brandon for the rugged Feb. 7-8 Class 2A, Region II Meet, aka "the Region of Doom."
That regional could feature 2A's top four teams in one building next week - leaving little room for anyone else not donning a Springstead, Brandon, Tampa-Jesuit or Lakeland-Lake Gibson singlet.
On Saturday, Springstead will host Belleview, Citrus, Lecanto, Ocala-Lake Weir and Ocala-Vanguard.
The Eagles are seeking to tie the Hernando County record of 10 straight district titles established by Hall of Famer Bob Levija's 1992-93 through 2001-02 Springstead mat teams.
In Season 34, the Mariner Boulevard mat men are seeking their 28th district championship. Through 33 winters, SHS has crowned a county-best 171 individual district champions.
SHS has rested since placing third at the Jan. 17-18 30th Ippolito Memorial Tournament at Brandon.
In a watered-down district, Springstead is expecting to be represented by 13 grapplers: junior Matt Landgraff at 106, frosh Richie Rivera at 113, junior Michael McDonald at 120, junior Quentin D'Alessandro at 126, junior Andrew Smith at 132, frosh Travis Williams at 138, senior Jordan Rivera at 145, junior Robert Holdway at 152, senior Vincent Buonanno at 160, junior Billy Swift at 170, sophomore Matt Lindsey at 182, senior Corey Humphrey at 195 and senior Travis O'Neil at 285.
SHS returns a county-high eight starters from last year's district team including: Landgraff, McDonald, Smith, Jordan Rivera, Holdway, Swift, Humphrey and O'Neil.
Of that eight, all but Holdway (who missed weight) placed last winter at SHS.
Of the Eagles' seven returning placers, four are returning district champions: Landgraff, McDonald, Smith and Rivera.
Swift and Humphrey were district runners-up behind respective state placers, NCT's Brandon Vovan and Hernando's Jesse Gaudin. O'Neil, in his first-ever district meet, placed fourth.
McDonald (35-0 won-lost record this winter, 25 pins) and Landgraff (34-2, 25 pins) are each seeking their third district title. Only 13 Eagles mat men have previously walked away with three first-place blue ribbons from this level.
Defending state champion Rivera (29-3, 154-22 lifetime with 79 pins) will be attempting to reach rare air with his fourth district championship.
Only four other Eagles - Corey Hill (1994-97), Jimmy Stevenson (1997-00), C.J. Cook (2005-08) and Cody Ross (2009-12) - have ever achieved the feat.
In 42 seasons, only one other Hernando County grappler - Hernando High's Courtney Elms (1995-98) - has also returned home with four district titles.
Second-year Springstead skipper Sal Basile, a two-time district champion in the two seasons he competed at SHS, isn't pointing toward any records. His concern, like all the mat coaches at this time, is pushing bodies into regionals.
"With only six teams, this field is drastically watered-down," lamented Basile. "There are guys coming here with great records, but who have they really wrestled? With the schedule we have, I'll put up our guys anytime (in the seed meeting)."
On predicting the outcome, "It could be a tight race because there won't be many matches," described Basile. "With the exception of Belleview, I don't think anyone else is bringing a full team here.
"If there were 8-9 teams I wouldn't have too much cause for concern," added Basile. "At this point, I feel confident with our guys' abilities. I'm still definitely concerned because if a few things go the other way, who knows? There aren't many points to be had."
? ? ?
The 1A-6 Tourney is expecting: Anclote, Central, Nature Coast, Gulf, Ridgewood, Hudson, Pasco, Weeki Wachee, Wesley Chapel and host Hernando.
Pasco is a defending district champion.
Hernando, which hasn't captured a district crown since 2004-05 under Matt Smith, arrives 17-16 overall (a quantum leap from 8-24 in 2012-13) and fresh from its fifth-place finish in the Bidwell Memorial at Englewood-Lemon Bay last weekend.
The Leopards enjoyed six placers at that event featuring: seniors Brennan Ertl at 160 and Jesse Gaudin at 220 (each placing runner-up), junior Austin Webber at 170 (third), senior Bailey Mosher at 120 and sophomore Abel Terkevich at 182 (both fourth), and junior Austin Watson at 126 (sixth).
HHS is expecting to bring a county-high 14-man lineup to districts, featuring six returning district performers: Mosher at 120 (fourth place), sophomore Johnny Fouts at 132, senior Ricky Swain (fourth in 2012, injured and missed all of last season), Ertl at 160 (placed third), freshman Lane Whitaker at 195 and Gaudin at 220.
Gaudin, a 2013 state placer (third), is attempting to become the school's sixth grappler to capture three district titles. Others include: Michael Combs, Brandyn Kuhn, Jesse Graham, and David and Daniel Pritz.
Gaudin arrives a team-best 38-3, along with a team-high 24 pins.
The four-year Leopard starter ranks fifth all-time in victories (135) and needs nine pins to surpass Michael Combs as the school's all-time leader in that department.
Ertl at 35-9 this winter ranks 14th all-time in school history at 110-53.
Health-wise, the Leopards' lone concern is Whitaker. He's expected to be cleared by a doctor Friday to have stitches removed from his injured elbow.
Second-year Leopard mentor David Pritz is a realistic regarding who'll win 1A-6.
"The favorite has to be Pasco," declared Pritz. "They have a number of quality guys and they'll send the most from our district to regionals. After Pasco, it's a tossup at who'll finish second or even third."
Pritz is banking on "pushing seven into regionals. On a perfect day we could push four guys into the finals."
The Class 1A, Region II Tournament is scheduled for Feb. 7-8 at Green Cove Springs-Clay.
After three district runner-up trophies over the past four winters, is it any wonder Nature Coast Technical's goal all season has been to return home with the district championship trophy in Year 10?
The problem lies in that not one Shark competed at this level two winters ago.
Six Sharks return from last year's second-place performance at Springstead including: juniors Mark Espinosa at 126, Joey DeFranco at 132, Jeramie Jazikoff at 138, Adrian Rivera at 152, Frank Ritchie at 195 and sophomore Anthony Contegiacomo at 220.
DeFranco, Jazikoff and Rivera all finished as district runners-up while Espinosa placed third last winter.
Additionally, NCT is almost at full strength. The Sharks are expected to arrive with 13 grapplers.
Should sophomore Keegan Davis make weight at 113 (he's had weight trouble all winter), along with the return of sophomore DeShawn Smith at 160, it would help fortify NCT's title chances.
NCT notched a school-record four district champs last winter at SHS. Problem is all four of those grapplers have graduated.
Best bets for the Sharks to etch their ninth district champion in 10 years includes: junior Le'Shaun Gray (29-11) at 170, Rivera (28-9) at 152, and Jazikoff (30-10) at 138.
The county's senior mentor, NCT's 10th-year head coach Mike Lastra, hasn't wavered from his preseason goal.
"Since Day 1, we want to go home Saturday night as district champs, that's still our No. 1 goal," Lastra said. "With a great day, I think we can push eight into the finals and probably get three champs - that still might not be enough.
"There's no doubt, Pasco is definitely the favorite," said Lastra. "But if a few swing matches go our way in the semifinals, we might be right there in the hunt. If we could win, say, two or three head- to-head matches with Pasco that's a 40-point swing. That's 20 away from them and 20 going to us."
Third-year Weeki Wachee (18-17 overall) just wrapped up its first-ever winning regular season.
Thanks to the transfer of former Central High state qualifier Jesus Nieves, the Hornets arrive at HHS with six grapplers with district experience featuring: seniors Nieves at 132, Dante Padilla at 120, Nathaniel DeJesus at 145 and Anthony Vines at 285, and sophomores Brandon Smith at 106 and Brandon Enoch at 138.
Of that group, Nieves is the only member with a district championship blue ribbon in his grasp.
Padilla (second), Smith (third) and Enoch (fourth) all placed during last winter's 1A-8 Meet at Anclote.
Interestingly, Vines arrives as the county leader in victories (49) and pins (36) - but has never won a match at the district level. He's got redemption on his mind. Besides trying to wipe away a career 0-4 mark over the past two districts, he's in hot pursuit of county records in single-season wins (52) and pins (39).
Like everyone else on the Hornets' team, Vines is attempting to become the school's first-ever district champion.
Third-year skipper Joe Felice doesn't believe the Hornets' nine-man lineup has enough firepower to dethrone either Pasco or NCT.
"I still think Pasco is the favorite," said the former Springstead district champion. "They'll get too many finalists to catch. Nature Coast should finish second. They don't have many top seeds, but Nature Coast and Wesley Chapel have what a lot our (district) teams don't have - a lot good kids in the upper weights."
On how the Hornets will fare, "On a good day, we could push four into the finals: Smith, Padilla, Nieves and Vines," noted Felice. "That's probably good enough for a top-five finish. I doubt that'll be enough to place top-three finish."
Of Central's eight grapplers to compete this season, as many as six are expected to participate Saturday.
CHS is expected to return two starters from last year's 2A-7 Meet at Springstead: seniors Austin Mestres at 113 and Brandon Brown at 182.
Brown finished third last winter in districts while Mestres was fourth. Brown arrives with a team-best 17-2 won-lost mark, featuring seven pins.
At a Glance
What - Class 2A, District 5 Wrestling Tournament.
Who - Six teams in a double-elimination IBT (individually bracketed tournament) format featuring: Belleview, Citrus, Lecanto, Ocala-Lake Weir, Ocala-Vanguard and host and 27-time district champion Springstead.
Where - Along two mats at the Springstead gymnasium.
When - Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m.
At Stake - Trophies awarded to two top teams. Top four placers in each of the 14 weight classes receives a ribbon and advances to the rugged Feb. 7-8 2A-Region II Tournament at Brandon.
What - Class 1A, District 6 Wrestling Tournament.
Who - Ten teams in a double-elimination IBT (individually bracketed tournament) format including: Anclote, Central, Nature Coast Technical, Gulf, Ridgewood, Hudson, Pasco, Weeki Wachee, Wesley Chapel and host Hernando.
Where - Hernando High's Michael A. Imhoff Gymnasium.
When - Saturday, beginning at 10:30 a.m.
At Stake - Trophies awarded to two top teams. Top four placers in each of the 14 weight classes receives a ribbon and advances to the rugged Feb. 7-8 1A-Region II Tournament at Green Cove Springs-Clay.