One of the most storied grapplers in Hernando County history - Nicholas "Nick" Carlin Ivan Soto - returned home late Monday for Christmas before returning Thursday to his Division I wrestling program at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Soto signed a national letter of intent in March 2011 with the Mockingbirds following a brilliant 140-12 (.921 winning percentage) career at Springstead from 2007-11.
Under coaches Eric Swensen and Sal Basile, the former Eagle captain completed his prep career as a three-time state placer and two-time state champion in Class 2A.
In his first season at Chattanooga, the 5-foot-5 Soto posted a fine 25-8 campaign at 133 pounds.
He finished 13-4 in dual meets and registered a 12-3 slate in open tourneys.
Soto, a former three-time All-County selection and two-time Co-Wrestler of the Year, was named All-Southern Conference behind a 6-0 slate in the nine-team conference meet at Chattanooga.
For his efforts, Soto helped the Mocs claim the SoCon Tourney title and was named the conference's Freshman Athlete of the Year.
As a Southern Conference champion, Soto earned one of the automatic bids to the 2012 NCAA Wrestling Finals at the 19,150-seat Scottrade Center (home of the St. Louis Blues) in St. Louis.
He finished 1-2 in the double-elimination event. Soto was ousted by Edinboro University All-American A.J. Shopp.
Due to injuries on the team, Soto dropped down to 125 for his sophomore season. He notched a 26-8 campaign featuring a 14-3 run in dual meets and a 12-5 mark in open tourneys.
For the second straight year, he reached the top of the podium as a Southern Conference champion behind a 7-0 run at Virginia Military Institute. In the process, the Mocs repeated as SoCon champs.
Soto was one of three Southern Conference grapplers invited to the 2013 NCAA Tournament at the 16,980-seat Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
This time Virginia Tech's All-American wrestler Jarrod Garnett showed Soto the door following a 0-2 visit.
Earlier in the season, Soto had beaten Garnett while winning the Hokie Open in Blacksburg, Va.
Despite his overall success - based on Soto winning 76 percent of his D-I matches after two seasons - the two power failures in the NCAA Tourneys haunted him.
"The NCAA Tournament is like everything else in life," declared the 21-year-old Soto. "It's a learning process. I'll continue to do my best. I realize I have to wrestle my way to be successful.
Soto admitted that cutting to 125 benefitted the team, but left him vulnerable.
"Even though I made weight every meet, the weight cut took its toll on me at the end," insisted Soto. "In my walk with Christ, you understand the highs aren't too high and lows aren't too low. The key is I have to keep moving. I put (the NCAA) losses behind me; you have to."
The weight loss also negatively impacted Soto's academics.
After his first semester at Chattanooga, he turned in a 4.0 grade point average, which stunned his father.
"He just said he was able to focus better," recalled his dad and former SHS assistant wrestling coach Chris Soto.
"Last year, my life got out of balance," recalled Soto. "As a result, I allowed my grades to slip. I put an unusual amount of time on wrestling and making weight. I pushed aside homework and studying.
"This year, I've learned to balance my studies," detailed Soto, who is a marketing major with a current 2.85 GPA.
Soto began his third season with the Mocs in an inauspicious manner. He dropped a few early-season matches, including one to a premier NAIA grappler, before righting the ship.
According to Chris Soto, Nick was fighting his own personal demons.
"Chattanooga hired John Sioredas - former All-American at Old Dominion - as one of the team's new assistant coaches," pointed out Coach Soto. "In listening to what Coach Sioredas was emphasizing, Nick lost his style. It's what made him so successful in the past."
Coach Soto pointed out that when Nick is at his best, "He's a high-tempo and constant pressure-type wrestler. He wants to score 15 points on everybody. When he's on, there's no letup and no place to hide. He's in your face and pressuring.
"Nick had slowed himself down and I told him that if I was coaching against him that's exactly what I'd do."
Because of the early-season setbacks, Soto had been dropped from the national radar until a rush of success over the past 10 days. In that time, Soto has stunned two All-Americans.
On Dec. 15 at Atlanta's Lawrenceville's Mountain View High, Chattanooga fell in the final bout of the day to Purdue, 21-15.
Former Kissimmee-Osceola standout Levi Clemmons was stuck in the last bout for the Boilermakers to win.
That day, Soto raised eyebrows by solving Purdue's Cashe Quiroga - a redshirt senior All-American - 10-8.
A week later, the Mocs competed in Palo Alto, California.
Two years earlier, Soto fell in a dual meet against Stanford's sixth-ranked Ryan Mango, 14-6.
The rematch finally took place last week in Nor-Cal. This time, Soto wrecked Mango, a two-time All-American and the No. 1-ranked grappler in the United States at 133 pounds, 15-8.
Not to be outdone, immediately after the dual meet, Soto hopped aboard a plane for the Reno Tournament of Champions. In last weekend's Nevada event, Soto went 5-0 at 133 to claim the gold medal.
Soto opened the meet by crushing Clint Jones of Shorter University in Georgia, 15-0, and then solving Izaak Tobin of Oregon State, 11-5.
Next, he solved Ben Morgan of Nebraska (6-2) and Devon Lotito of Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo (9-0).
In the tourney finals, he folded Javier Gasca III - a redshirt freshman from Michigan State - 12-3.
After leaving Spring Hill, Soto returned to Coach Heath Eslinger's team to begin preparing for Wednesday and Thursday's 11th annual Southern Scuffle at Chattanooga.
According to Coach Soto, "The Scuffle is a wicked, wicked tournament. Only the NCAA Finals is tougher."
The 33-team field is expected to showcase 34 All-Americans. Four of the nation's top 10 mat programs will be in attendance including top-ranked Penn State University, No. 2 University of Minnesota, No. 4 Oklahoma State University and No. 7 Cornell University.
The Mocs are currently ranked No. 32.
Despite his recent scalps, Soto (18-4 this season) was quick not to proclaim his victories over Quiroga or Mango as "defining moments."
"I wouldn't call winning at Reno or even beating Mango my defining moments," explained Soto. "They're just pieces of my puzzle."
Before leaving for the Volunteer State, Soto popped into his old digs Tuesday at the SHS wrestling room.
"Giving back is priceless," said Soto. "Sal (Basile) has done so much for me, it's the least I could do was get a good feeling by visiting the old stomping grounds. I wanted to see how the guys are. It helps me see the bigger picture a little better.
"Just rolling around with the guys made it crazy special," he added. "I wanted to encourage the guys as much as Sal and the other coaches had encouraged my career. I want them to believe that they can be just as successful as they want to be."
By the numbers: University of Tennessee-Chattanooga's Nick Soto
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
2011-12*#$ 133 25 8 .758 3
2012-13*# 125 26 8 .765 6
$ Denotes Southern Conference Freshman of the Year.
* Denotes Southern Conference Champion.
# Denotes NCAA Division-I Tourney participant.
By the numbers: Springstead's Nick Soto (2007-11)
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
2008-09+^ 125 40 7 .851 14
2009-10$^% 130 45 0 1.000 29
2010-11$^% 135 50 2 .962 35
+ Denotes state placer (4th)
^ Denotes All-County selection.
% Denotes Co-Wrestler of the Year.