All five Hernando County mat programs will remain active this weekend at three different venues.
Springstead and Hernando trek today and Saturday to the two-day, 17-team, 18th annual Cougar Invitational Wrestling Tournament hosted by Plant City-Durant High.
Also over the next two days, Nature Coast Technical and Central will take part in the two-day, 19-team, 12th annual Gulf Duals in New Port Richey.
Weeki Wachee journeys to another two-day affair, the 16-team, seventh annual Longhorn Christmas Tournament sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps at Harmony High in Osceola County.
In year's past the Hillsborough County-based Cougar Invitational has been one of the elite mat tourneys in the state.
In 2008 and in 2011, the Cougar drew as many as 31 teams. The state maximum is 32 teams.
The Cougar was so stellar it had maxed outs the Durant facilities. Over the past three winters, it had been held at the Tampa Convention Center and the Plant City Fairgrounds.
According to Durant skipper and tourney director Drake Millard, the Cougar suffered from a booking conflict and could not return to the Fairgrounds.
As a result, DHS changed its tourney date to this weekend.
With the change, several of the top Georgia programs and a host of top-shelf Florida programs opted out for different locales.
This year's Cougar is a watered-down version of last year. How watered-down? The host Cougars, who typically attempt to finish among the top 10 of their own tournament, placed 13th last winter at the Medonia Center at the Strawberry Festival Grounds.
Eleven of 12 teams ahead of the Cougars opted for other venues.
Only Springstead, which placed a disappointing eighth here last winter, is the lone top 10 returning team.
The past three team champions, defending champion Kissimmee-Osceola and 24-time state champion Brandon (Cougar champion in 2010-11) are not back.
"For years we weren't trying to win this," explained Coach Millard, who served as Durant's original mat mentor from 1995-99, before replacing Dennis Kitko in 2012-13. "We tried to bring in the best competition we could. Due to the scheduling conflict we've basically been forced to create a whole new tournament. Hopefully, next year we'll go back and try to attract 32 solid teams."
On paper, Coach Millard believes Springstead and Flagler Palm Coast are the Cougar's two top contenders.
"Springstead looks real strong again. We saw them at Kiwanis," said Millard, whose team placed fourth in the Brooksville-based event. "Individually, each weight class seems to have 3-4 contenders. The semifinals and finals should still be exciting."
Second-year Leopard mentor David Pritz didn't like the fact that the Purple and Gold have been eliminated the past two years following the first round at the nearby Gulf Duals.
That's why this winter he opted instead for Durant. Plus, seeing different teams helped in the decision-making process.
"When I look at the Cougar, I see a lot of teams we haven't seen before," said the former three-time state qualifier Pritz. "So far, we've seen a lot of the teams over and over again. This weekend it'll be good for us to see some fresh teams."
Pritz, whose team finished fifth at the Diamondback Duals following last weekend's 5-4 mark, remarked, "We can't have a break from wrestling in any position whether we're neutral, on top or on bottom."
"Our biggest improvement has come with our younger guys," pointed out Pritz. "They've kind of stepped up their game."
At Belleview, grizzly seniors Jesse Gaudin at 220 and Brennan Ertl at 160 both went 8-1, totaling 12 pins.
Gaudin (18-1 overall) extended his winning skein to 16 in a row before Sarasota's 2013 state placer, Tobias Baker, captured a 13-7 decision.
Ertl's (21-3) lone setback arrived at the hands of George Jenkins' Matt Moskowitz, via an 11-1 major decision.
"Jesse's loss could have been the best thing for him," detailed Pritz. "I'd rather him not go to states unbeaten; that's a lot less pressure. He was refocused and ready to go in practice. We'll get another shot at Baker."
SHS will be making its eighth straight trip to the Cougar Invite.
After winning this tournament in 2009, SHS has slowly slipped: third (2010), sixth (2011) and eighth (2012).
The Mariner Boulevard mat men return seven grapplers from last year's Cougar featuring: seniors Jordan Rivera (third in 2012) at 145 and Corey Humphrey at 220, and juniors Matt Landgraff (fourth) at 106, Michael McDonald at 120 (first), Andrew Smith at 132, Billy Swift at 160 and Robert Holdway at 170.
Rivera (9-0 this winter) arrives 11-5 lifetime at Durant and has placed at DHS the past two winters.
McDonald is 9-2 lifetime at DHS with seven pins. McDonald arrives 96-16 career-wise, needing four wins to become the 23rd Eagle to eclipse the 100-win plateau.
Likewise, Landgraff is 6-4 lifetime at the Cougar and is 95-21 career-wise. With five wins this weekend he'll join the exclusive Century Club at SHS, too.
The Spring Hill mat men, however, will journey to Plant City without a complete lineup.
According to head coach Sal Basile, two Eagle seniors, Shane Wiggins at 182 and Travis O'Neil at 1995, are no longer members of the team.
"Even though we're walking in with 12 guys, our mindset is the same as always," pointed out Coach Basile, whose team has captured 12-of-14 mat events since he took the reins. "Now, Flagler has a lot of their guys back from a good team last year.
"And don't forget Tampa Prep. They may only bring 6-7 kids, but they're all solid kids," added Basile.
In predicting the tourney, "This isn't the same Springstead team of years past; we've got holes," emphasized Basile. "We'll have a hard time blowing out anybody. But we've got seven guys who could make some noise. I think we'd do better in a huge tournament because of our better individuals than in a watered-down tournament."
The Gulf Duals takes place at two venues: Gulf and Ridgewood High.
On Saturday, the three top teams from the four different pools will converge into a 12-man bracket.
The defending tourney champion is Clay. The tourney's top seeds went to Clay, Dunedin, Nature Coast and Pasco.
According to first-year Gulf High mentor Mike Calafiore, "Clay and Dunedin should battle it out for first place. As an assistant I saw Clay (defending 1A state runner-up) and they were a solid, all-around team."
Nature Coast finished third out of 23 teams last winter at Gulf. The Sharks arrive following a fourth-place 2-3 effort during last Saturdays' 6-Way Combs Duals at Springstead.
NCT is again expected to be without any grapplers at 106 or 113.
Coach Lastra also announced that sophomore DeShawn Smith's six-week suspension handed down by the FHSAA for unsporting behavior at the Kiwanis Invite will not be appealed.
Smith's loss creates a void at 160. NCT will attempt to fill his spot by rotating different grapplers.
Lastra also indicated that junior Adrian Rivera tweaked his knee last weekend against Springstead's Vincent Buonanno at 152.
Rivera had an MRI scheduled this week and is not expected to compete this weekend.
For the Sharks to win their pool, they'll have to solve Crystal River again. In the Weeki Wachee Duals II, NCT fell to the Pirates, 40-31.
"We're kind of feeling out some teams from our district and region," declared Lastra. "The Gulf Duals are good for us because we'll see a lot of the teams from our region."
The Sharks enter the West Pasco County event led by junior Mark Espinosa (18-4) at 126 and Contegiacomo (17-4) at 220.
The Central Bears arrive winless on the season (0-7). The Bears are led by senior Brandon Brown's 11-0 slate, featuring six pins at 195.
Last winter, Weeki Wachee finished ninth overall in the 16-team Longhorn Christmas Tournament, with four wins against four losses across the two-day event.
Five Hornets return from last year's event including: seniors Anthony Vines at 285, Dante Padilla at 120 and Nathaniel DeJesus at 145, along with sophomores Brandon Smith at 106 and Brandon Enoch at 132.
"I see an open field on both sides of the pools," pointed out 10th-year Longhorn skipper Chris Todd. "In Pool A, maybe us and Cypress Creek are the best two teams, but in Pool B any one of three teams - including Fort Myers, Timber Creek or Oviedo - could win."
WWHS arrives fresh from placing sixth in the Diamondback Duals last weekend at Belleview. The Hornets captured 50-of-80 bouts (63 percent), featuring 32 pins.
Head coach Joe Felice's squad was paced by seniors Jesus Nieves at 132 and Padilla at 120, who combined to go 16-0, highlighted by 10 pins.
"This weekend is an opportunity for us," noted the third-year skipper Felice. "We have to wrestle decent. Last year, this tournament had mostly a 1A field, now it's become a 3A field. This just gives us a chance to compete and hopefully build some confidence.
"A tourney like this has so much value because we get to see kids we don't normally see. And see different styles from different areas," he added.
According to Felice, the Hornets are expected to bring 12 grapplers to Osceola County.
Vines leads the Hornets at 24-2, featuring a county-best 21 pins. Padilla (22-4) and Nieves (21-2) are right behind.
At a Glance
What - 18th annual Cougar Invitational Wrestling Tournament.
Who - Seventeen teams are expected to compete in the individually bracketed tourney format featuring: Springstead, Hernando, Bunnell-Flagler Palm Coast, Jupiter Christian, Tampa Prep, Tampa-Hillsborough, Tampa-King, Tampa-Plant, Lutz-Steinbrenner, Tampa-Riverview, Tampa-Robinson, Palm Bay-Bayside, Miami-Belen Jesuit, Sarasota Military Academy, Sarasota-Riverview, Valrico-Bloomingdale and host Plant City-Durant. Defending champion is Kissimmee-Osceola.
Where - Across four mats at the Durant High gymnasium, 4748 Cougar Path, Plant City.
When - Today and Saturday, with the opening round expected to run from 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday's first round is set for 9 a.m. featuring the third-round wrestlebacks. Semifinals are expected to start at 11 a.m. followed by the fourth-round wrestlebacks. Consolation finals for fifth/sixth, third/fourth will be run on two mats beginning at 4 p.m. Finals will follow.
At Stake - Trophies will be presented to top four teams. A tourney statuette will be presented to each weight class champion, while medals will be awarded for the second- through sixth-place finishers. There will also be individual awards presented for Most Pins, Least Amount of Time; Outstanding Wrestler Lightweights (145 pounds and below) and Outstanding Wrestler Heavyweights (152 pounds and above).
What - 12th annual Gulf Duals.
Who - A 19-team dual-meet format featuring: Pool A - Green Cove Springs-Clay, Citrus, Land O' Lakes and Sunlake; Pool B - Dunedin; Mitchell, Ridgewood, Gainesville-Eastside and Central; Pool C - Nature Coast Technical, Fivay, River Ridge, Wesley Chapel and Crystal River; Pool D - Pasco, Hudson, Gulf, Calvary Academy and Wiregrass Ranch. Defending champion is Clay.
Where - Pools A and D will compete at Gulf High's Joe Bever Student Activity Center, 5355 School Road, New Port Richey, while Pools B and C will compete at Ridgewood High, 7650 Orchid Lake Road, New Port Richey.
When - Today and Saturday, with today's action running from 5 to 10 p.m. The top three teams from each of today's pools advance to Saturday's second round in a 12-team bracket. Saturday's action runs from 9:15 a.m. until 4 p.m. at GHS.
At Stake - Trophies for the top four teams.
What - 7th annual Longhorn Christmas Tournament sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps.
Who - A 16-team, dual-meet format featuring: Pool A - Harmony, Seminole-Osceola, Weeki Wachee, Orlando-Lake Nona, Deltona-Pine Ridge, Jacksonville-Terry Parker and Orlando-Cypress Creek; Pool B - Melbourne-Viera, Oviedo, Altamonte Springs-Lake Branley, Cocoa Beach, Orlando-Timber Creek, Gainesville-Eastside, Fort Myers and Cocoa-Space Coast. Defending champion is Jensen Beach.
Where - Harmony High, 3601 Arthur J. Gallagher Blvd, St. Cloud.
When - Today and Saturday, with today's action running from 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday's action begins at 9 a.m.
At Stake - Trophies will be awarded to the top three teams as well as Outstanding Wrestler Awards for the top lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight.