PLANT CITY - Springstead head coach Sal Basile refers to his experienced grapplers as "Big Dogs." The reasons are simple.
Of the Eagles' eight returning starters from last year's third straight state championship run in Class 2A, six are returning state qualifiers: Matt Landgraff at 106, Michael McDonald at 120, Andrew Smith at 132, Jordan Rivera at 145, Billy Swift at 170 and Corey Humphrey at 220.
True to form, those six all placed at this weekend's watered-down 18th annual Cougar Invitational at Plant City-Durant High.
Many coaches overlook Springstead's runt of the litter - Landgraff.
To some extent, he's been overshadowed by some of the bigger and feistier members of the Springstead 'kennel.'
Maybe the 5-foot-6 Landgraff shouldn't be considered a Chihuahua.
As a freshman, Landgraff captured 33-of-45 matches (73 percent) with 14 pins.
In his first-ever IBT (individually bracketed tourney) at the loaded 2011 Cougar Invitational at the Tampa Convention Center, he finished 3-2 with three pins.
That was the only event that season that Landgraff failed to place.
His calling card has been his consistency.
His seasonal highlights included earning a rare district championship during the 2A-7 Tournament at Hernando High at 106.
In the rugged 2A-Region II, aka the "Region of Doom," Landgraff finished runner-up to his nemesis Sean Nguyen of Nature Coast.
In his first-ever trip to the FHSAA Finals in 2012, Landgraff finished 2-3 placing sixth.
As a sophomore across 10 IBTs, Landgraff batted 1.000, placing in all 10 of the rugged tourneys the Eagles participated in.
Displaying his improvement on the mats, he earned top-of-the-podium performances at the Brooksville-Kiwanis, St. Cloud's Bulldog Brawl II, Springstead Invitational, and a repeat district title at Springstead.
In perhaps his most impressive match of his young career, he solved 2013 state runner-up Nguyen to the roar of the Eagles' fans, 9-7.
But in "Region of Doom" Nguyen restored order behind a dominant 8-2 win in the finals.
In his second trip to states in Polk County, Landgraff pinned his first two opponents before being stuck by Southwest Ranches-Archbishop McCarthy junior Radley Gillis (2:41) and Boca Raton-Olympic Heights senior John Cleristor (3:52).
Despite the back-to-back setbacks, Landgraff bounced back to edge Hallandale senior Randy Garay to place fifth.
Since that last match in the Jenkins Arena, Landgraff hasn't lost.
This winter, he's been able to maintain his weight. On the mats, Landgraff continues his business-like approach.
This past weekend in Hillsborough County, Landgraff went in as the top seed at 106.
He disposed of three opponents, his first two via his 53rd and 54th career pins, to earn his first-place finish at Durant.
As the dust settled on the two-day, 17-team meet, the focus has begun on the star-studded Knockout Christmas Tournament at the palatial Kissimmee-Osceola gymnasium next weekend.
Many of the state's finest grapplers will flood the mats. Landgraff should be in the discussion as an elite grappler.
And why not? To date, he's placed in 21 straight IBTs since his first event at the Tampa Convention Center.
Behind Saturday night's 7-3 finals decision over Tampa Prep sophomore Aaron Mills, Landgraff (16-0 this winter) enters Osceola County riding a 17-match win skein. That ties his 17-match streak during his 49-9 sophomore campaign.
He's won his last three IBT events - something he's never achieved before.
There's plenty on the table besides bragging rights. With two wins at Knockout, Landgraff (98-21 lifetime) will become the 24th Eagle to reach the vaunted 100-win fraternity.
"I came into Durant wanting to win," explained the 16-year-old Landgraff. "It's the same mentality I carry every weekend.
"I thought the Tampa Prep kid (Mills) got after it better than he did before (at the Wildcat Invitational at Ocala-Forest). We know each other pretty well," added Landgraff. "I thought I had a good weekend and I did what I wanted to do."
Coach Basile, a two-time state qualifier, believes Landgraff is more like a Rottweiler these days.
"Over the last two years Matt has physically and mentally changed," explained Coach Basile. "In a nutshell, he's technically sound. When he started with us, he was an average-to-small 106-pounder.
"I'm very proud of how he has maintained his weight through his diet. He doesn't go crazy (eating) on Sundays anymore," Basile said. "There were times when he struggled with his weight in the past, not anymore.
"In the (wrestling) room, Matt works his butt off," described Basile. "I'd describe him as a student of the sport. This is a different year than in the past. He's searching for his identity."
On what Basile admires the most, "Matt listens really well," stressed Basile. "He was stubborn to a point in the past and I think that all stemmed from his lack of confidence or insecurity on doing certain things. But he's all bought-in. Right now, he believes he can beat anybody."
On whether beating Nguyen in last year's district tournament is his defining moment, "Guys like Mikey (Michael McDonald), Jordan (Rivera) and Matt are the type of kids that step up their game when the heat is turned up," pointed out Basile. "Nguyen kind of haunted him until he beat him in districts. Well, now he's (Nguyen) gone and he's (Landgraff) been wrestling on a mission. He handles his business very effectively and without a lot of fanfare. He's the type of kid that when he smells blood in the water, look out.
"Can he remain unbeaten?" said Basile. "I think he's in good shape. We're going to see; there's a great test next weekend."
By the bumbers: Springstead's Matt Landgraff (2011-14)
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YEAR W L .PCT PINS
2011-12+ 33 12 .733 14
2012-13^ 49 09 .845 29
2013-14 16 0 1.000 11
TOTALS 98 21 .824 54
+ Denotes state placer (6th)
^ Denotes state placer (5th)
By the numbers: Landgraff's career IBT results
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YEAR SITE W L .PCT PINS PL
2011-12 Cougar Inv. 3 2 .667 3 -
2011-12 Kiwanis Inv. 2 1 .667 1 2nd
2011-12 St. Cloud Inv. 4 1 .800 2 3rd
2011-12 Springstead Inv. 2 1 .667 0 2nd
2011-12 Flagler Rotary Inv. 5 1 .833 1 3rd
2011-12 Brandon Ippolito 4 1 .800 2 2nd
2011-12 2A-7 Tourney 2 0 1.000 0 1st
2011-12 2A-II Tourney 3 1 .750 1 2nd
2011-12 2A State Tourney 2 3 .400 0 6th
2012-13 Cougar Inv. 3 2 .600 1 4th
2012-13 Kiwanis Inv. 5 0 1.000 2 1st
2012-13 St. Cloud Inv. 4 0 1.000 2 1st
2012-13 Knockout 5 1 .833 3 3rd
2012-13 Springstead Inv. 4 0 1.000 3 1st
2012-13 Flagler Rotary Inv. 5 2 .714 3 5th
2012-13 Brandon Ippolito 4 1 .800 3 2nd
2012-13 2A-7 Tourney 3 0 1.000 1 1st
2012-13 2A-II Tourney 3 1 .750 2 2nd
2012-13 2A State Tourney 3 2 .600 2 5th
2013-14 Wildcat Inv. 4 0 1.000 2 1st
2013-14 Kiwanis Inv. 4 0 1.000 3 1st
2013-14 Cougar Inv. 3 0 1.000 2 1st
TOTALS (22) 77 20 .798 39