Twenty-four wrestling teams are expected to usher in the New Year beginning with this afternoon's opening round of the Springstead Invitational sponsored by Foster's Roofing.
The 24th annual event in Spring Hill features a two-day, double-elimination IBT (individually bracketed tournament) expected to attract over 200 wrestlers representing eight counties (Hernando, Pasco, Citrus, Sumter, Hillsborough, Polk, Orange and Flagler).
Avoiding any last-minute cancellations, this will be the largest-ever Springstead Invite - surpassing 2011's 23-team field.
The field is expected to include: two-time champion Hernando, Nature Coast Technical, Central and Weeki Wachee from Hernando County, along with host and 16-time champion Springstead; Pasco County's Gulf, River Ridge, Ridgewood, Land O' Lakes, Sunlake, Fivay, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch; Hillsborough County's Seffner-Armwood, Tampa-Sickles, Tampa-Hillsborough, Tampa-Chamberlain, Tampa-Gaither; Polk County's Auburndale and Winter Haven; Citrus County's Citrus; Orange County's Orlando-Edgewater; Flagler County's Bunnell-Flagler Palm Coast and Sumter County's The Villages.
The defending tourney champion is Springstead.
Action begins in the Eagles' gymnasium across three mats at 2:30 p.m. today and will run until 10 p.m.
Saturday's action is expected to begin with semifinals at 10 a.m. Consolation finals are set for 4 p.m. followed immediately by the tourney finals.
SHS is navigating through unchartered waters.
The Eagles are attempting to become the first Hernando County mat squad to win its own event eight times in a row.
In nearly a generation of competition, Springstead has compiled a meet-best 175 placers (top-four finish or better), featuring a tourney-high 89 gold medals.
Last winter, Spring Hill grapplers captured 39-of-50 (78 percent) bouts and walked away with 10 placers featuring six champions, one runner-up, two third-placers and one fourth-placer.
The Eagles are coming off a sixth-place finish in perhaps the toughest tournament in the state - last weekend's Knockout Christmas Classic II at Kissimmee-Osceola.
The three-time defending Class 2A state champion Eagles are expected to defend their title behind eight Springstead Invite returnees: seniors Travis O'Neil at 285, Corey Humphrey at 220 and Jordan Rivera at 145, along with juniors Matt Landgraff at 106, Michael McDonald at 120, Andrew Smith at 132, Robert Holdway at 152 and Billy Swift at 160.
Rivera, Landgraff and McDonald turned in top-of-the-podium performances in 2013.
Rivera arrives 11-1 lifetime in this event with gold medals as a freshman and as a junior. Rivera, at 141-22 lifetime, needs five wins to tie Richie Bliss for sixth place in all-time victories at SHS.
The three-time state placer and defending 2013 2A state champion Rivera will be attempting to reach rare air.
Of the previous 60 Eagle gold medalists, only nine have won this event at least three times - Bliss, John Dreggors, Corey Hill, Shawn Landgraff, Mike Marshall, Cody Ross, Nick Soto, Jimmy Stevenson and Schuyler Swanton.
Ross holds the school and county record of four wins in this event.
This weekend, SHS is expected to compete with a full boat featuring Richie Rivera (11-7) at 113 pounds, senior Vincent Buonanno at 170 (15-7) and frosh Travis Williams (2-2) at 138, while unveiling sophomores Matt Lindsey at 182 and Ryan Burzumato at 195.
Two Eagles enter with a team-best 21 victories featuring McDonald (21-0) and Landgraff (21-1) followed by Swift (19-3) and Humphrey (19-4).
This tourney is personal for several of the Hernando County coaches this weekend.
Springstead's second-year skipper, Sal Basile, who won this event 20 years ago (1993), didn't pull any punches on the meet's importance.
"We'll definitely be in a battle with Flagler," detailed Basile, referring to the 3A-District 1 Bulldogs, who upset SHS at Cougar Invite at Durant two weeks ago. "We've haven't been in the situation lately where a team that just beat us is coming in to beat us again. Make no mistake they've got a good team across the board. Things kind of went their way last time; we're going to need some help this time."
Identifying the field, "This might be the best overall field we've had in years," pointed out Basile, a two-time state qualifier. "A lot of good teams are coming. Somebody like Edgewater will be coming here with five really good kids. Flagler, Fivay, Hillsborough are all bringing good kids which will elevate the competition."
On this weekend's goals, "Obviously, we want to perform well at home," Basile replied. "We don't get to compete at home very often. We know we're going to get a challenge from Flagler, but ultimately we need to see improvement from each of our guys. Our emphasis in practice was to try to get more points out of our lineup and to see a more consistent performance.
"Take away Mikey (McDonald) and even Matt (Landgraff), and our guys have been up and down so far. I think we're just getting our sea legs underneath us; we'll see."
Hernando is one of the 17 original members involved in the 1991 event.
The Leopards will be making their 24th appearance. Over the years, the Purple and Gold have returned home with 89 placers and 29 champions.
Second-year Hernando mentor David Pritz understands the local ties.
Pritz, who posted an outstanding 149-14 run from 2003-06, won this event thrice - across three different weight classes (160, 171 and 189).
Pritz was also feted as one of the meet's 34 recipients of the Outstanding Wrestler award, in 2005.
Under former head coach Matt Smith, HHS won this event in 2003-04. HHS' 11-year streak of top-10 places ended last winter, as it finished 14th.
The Brooksville mat men are expected to enter with five returnees: seniors Jesse Gaudin at 220, Brennan Ertl at 160 and Ricky Swain at 145, junior Bailey Mosher at 120 and sophomore Johnny Fouts at 132.
Gaudin is 11-3 lifetime at SHS and won this event last winter while Ertl is also making his fourth appearance. He is 7-5 lifetime and placed third last winter.
Ertl arrives behind a team-best 24-3 slate this winter followed by Mosher (23-9) and Gaudin (22-1).
Ertl enters on the eve of a milestone. With one more win, Ertl (99-47) will become the 20th Leopard member of the 100-win fraternity.
"As far as battling for first place, I don't see anyone else in the fight besides Springstead and Flagler," noted Pritz. "Springstead is like everybody else, nobody wants to lose at home - they'll be ready."
On the overall flavor, "It's good to see other county teams increase the competition level, that's good for the sport," said Pritz.
Besides Gaudin and Ertl, Pritz predicts either Mosher at 120 or sophomore Lane Whitaker at 195 placing this weekend.
"We're bringing 14 guys and we'd like to start the second half on a good note," said Pritz. "Since the first week, we've progressed each week. It's still a young team; we've been working on improving in every position."
Suffice it to say the Springstead Invite has been a house of horrors for neighboring Nature Coast.
From 2005-13, of the Sharks' 109 grapplers at Springstead, two have returned home with gold medals.
Last winter, five placed as the Sharks finished fifth in the 21-team field.
This time, 10th-year skipper Mike Lastra's troops will attempt to forge their sixth straight top-10 team finish.
NCT was expected to arrive with five returnees including juniors Mark Espinosa at 126, Jeramie Jazikoff at 138, Adrian Rivera at 152, Frank Ritchie at 195 and Anthony Contegiacomo at 220.
Rivera, the only Shark returning placer from last winter, however, tweaked his knee three weeks ago, and will not be available.
NCT is coming off a disappointing ninth-place finish in the 15-team Lakeland Holiday Classic II.
Though no Shark reached the tourney finals, Contegiacomo placed third while junior Le'Shaun Gray at 170 placed fourth.
"Coming in, the Springstead Invitational has a similar feel to this year's (Brooksville) Kiwanis," pointed out Coach Lastra, the dean of the current Hernando County mat coaches. "There are a couple of powerhouse teams in Springstead and Flagler and a bunch of solid wrestlers."
On NCT's focus, "We're looking for consistency. I thought we wrestled well at Gulf (two weeks ago), but we wrestled poorly at Lakeland," emphasized Lastra. "At this point, this team is having identity struggles."
As far as Shark placers, "Ritchie, Gray, Espinosa and Anthony could all go deep in the brackets," detailed Lastra. "This weekend starts the second half of the season; we've got to start getting ready for districts."
Third-year Weeki Wachee appears ready to blossom. After their first two visits, the Hornets placed 21st and 19th respectively.
Sixteen Hornets have come and gone without ever placing at the Springstead Invite. This weekend, the stage is set for that scenario to end.
According to former Springstead Invitational champ Joe Felice, WWHS will arrive with nine grapplers, including six returnees to this event.
Sophomore Jake Wilson at 160 tweaked a knee a couple of weeks ago and will not be participating.
Senior Jesus Nieves at 132 is making his third Springstead Invite appearance. He's 5-3 lifetime and placed third in Spring Hill as a member of the Central Bears last winter.
Other returnees include: seniors Dante Padilla at 120, Nathaniel DeJesus at 145 and Anthony Vines at 285, along with sophomore Brandon Enoch at 138.
Vines arrives behind a career-best 32-2 slate, featuring a county-high 26 pins. He is on pace to eclipse the county record for wins in a season (52 by NCT's Sean Nguyen) and secure the most-ever pins in a season (39 by Springstead's Dreggors in 2010-11).
Padilla is right behind Vines at 30-4. The third-year Hornets' starter is 96-28 lifetime. With four wins this weekend, he'll be the school's first-ever grappler to reach the coveted 100-win plateau.
"I see two tough teams squaring off in Springstead and Flagler," pointed out Felice, a 1993 Eagle alumnus. "But there are a lot more quality individuals coming. At some of the weights classes - not all of them - they are 6-7 deep. If you win this weekend at say, 120, 132, 160, 170 or 220, you've wrestled some pretty stout competition."
Depicting the Hornets' focus, "I'm not sure if our guys have thought the Springstead atmosphere has been too big for them," noted Felice. "We're trying to get out of the gate faster. So far in each of the two-day tournaments we've been at this year, we've gotten off to slow starts. Put that on me, but we've got to be more aggressive on the first day.
"We got our first Kiwanis placer this year, now it's time to get out first Springstead placers," added Felice. "If our 4-5 best guys all place, we should be able to crack the top 10."
For the eighth time in 24 winters, the Central Bears will also be represented.
CHS (0-11 overall) hasn't competed since placing 17th out of 17 teams in the Dec. 20-21 12th annual Gulf Duals in New Port Richey.
The Bears' best-ever finish in this event was eighth in 2002. No previous Central grappler has ever returned home with a gold medal from Springstead.
Sophomore Adam Keister and senior Brandon Brown are expected to be the lone returnees. Neither placed last winter.
Brown entered the Gulf Duals unbeaten at 11-0 with six pins.
At a Glance
What: 24th annual Springstead Invitational Wrestling Tournament sponsored by Foster's Roofing.
Who: Expected 24-team field includes two-time champion Hernando, Nature Coast Technical, Central and Weeki Wachee from Hernando County, along with host and 16-time champion Springstead; Pasco County's Gulf, River Ridge, Ridgewood, Land O' Lakes, Sunlake, Fivay, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch; Hillsborough County's Seffner-Armwood, Tampa-Sickles, Tampa-Hillsborough, Tampa-Chamberlain, Tampa-Gaither; Polk County's Auburndale and Winter Haven; Citrus County's Citrus; Orange County's Orlando-Edgewater; Flagler County's Bunnell-Flagler Palm Coast and Sumter County's The Villages. Defending champion is Springstead.
Where: Springstead's gymnasium across three mats.
When: Two-day tournament begins today at 2:30 p.m. Saturday action is expected to begin with semifinals at 10 a.m. Consolation finals at 4 p.m. followed immediately by the finals.
At Stake: The top three teams earn trophies while the top four finishers in each weight class earn medals. Two Outstanding Wrestler Awards will be presented to the finest lightweight and heavyweight performers.
Past Springstead High Invitational Champions
YEAR NAME CHAMPION PTS.
2013 Foster's Roofing Spring Hill-Springstead 229.5
2012 Foster's Roofing Spring Hill-Springstead 248.0
2011 Foster's Roofing Spring Hill-Springstead 251.0
2010 Foster's Roofing Spring Hill-Springstead 328.5
2009 Foster's Roofing Spring Hill-Springstead 255.5
2008 Springstead Inv. Spring Hill-Springstead 216.5
2007 Brijbag Invitational Spring Hill-Springstead 197.0
2006 Brijbag Invitational Tampa-Jesuit 222.5
2005 MasadaHealthcare Tampa-Chamberlain 175.5
2004 MasadaHealthcare Brooksville-Hernando 202.0
2003 MasadaHealthcare Brooksville-Hernando 209.0
2002 Dr. Batista Spring Hill-Springstead 193.0
2001 Dr. Batista Spring Hill-Springstead 253.5
2000 Oak Hill Hospital Spring Hill-Springstead 196.0
1999 Nations Bank Spring Hill-Springstead 209.0
1998 Barnett Bank Spring Hill-Springstead 232.0
1997 Barnett Bank Spring Hill-Springstead 212.5
1996 Barnett Bank Tampa-Jesuit 170.5
1995 Barnett Bank Spring Hill-Springstead 170.5
1994 Barnett Bank Dade City-Pasco 157.5
1993 Barnett Bank Spring Hill-Springstead 181.5
1992 Springstead Inv. Palatka 156.5
1991 Springstead Inv. Spring Hill-Springstead 145.0