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Trio feted as "Kings of the Mats"

By TONY CASTRO
Hernando Today correspondent

Published:   |   Updated: March 9, 2014 at 12:47 PM

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In Season 42 of Hernando County wrestling, three of 80 prep varsity wrestlers - less than four percent - lived out their dreams, capturing individual gold medals at the 50th annual FHSAA Finals in Lakeland.

Interestingly, each local grappler took a divergent path to reach the top of the podium at Jenkins Arena in Polk County, and in turn split Hernando Today Wrestler of the Year.

Springstead senior Jordan Rivera cemented his elite status among the best that have ever competed locally behind his second-ever gold model in Class 2A at 145 pounds.

Hernando senior Jesse Gaudin, who dropped a gut-wrenching second-round match to Tampa-Jesuit's Austin Underwood at states in 2013, 4-3, utilized that loss as a source of inspiration to garner gold this winter in 1A's 220 division.

Springstead junior Michael McDonald may be the second-coming of Rivera.

In his third state visit, McDonald not only earned a gold medal in a thrilling come-from-behind fashion at 120, but concluded his personal-best season unbeaten at 44-0.

In a nutshell, Rivera is an elite athlete.

How many prep athletes don't play varsity football until their senior year, but earn a starting linebacker slot in the regional finals? The 5-foot-7 Rivera did.

The four-year mat starter was named All-County for the fourth time and repeated as Wrestler of the Year.

Rivera concluded his dazzling prep career ranked eighth all-time at Springstead in pins (84), fifth in matches (186) and second in victories (163).

At SHS, only Cody Ross (186) has piled up more individual victories than Rivera.

Rivera's consistency was his calling card. In 35 career IBTs (individually bracketed tournaments), he never finished below .500, placing in his last 34 in a row.

In all, Rivera finished 132-20 in IBTs featuring 67 pins - highlighted by 20 gold-medal performances.

Rivera's 38-4 senior season tilted following a 3-3 performance at one of Florida's biggest appetizers prior to the main course at Lakeland - the Knockout Classic II at Kissimmee-Osceola.

After Rivera went 3-0 on the first day, he lost three times on the second day to place sixth.

"That tournament was a mental test for me. I had to beat better kids, but I had too many mental breakdowns," pointed out the 18-year-old Rivera. "I was a long ride back home. That's when I realized I only had six weeks left in my senior season.

"From that point on, I did everything I could to win another state title. I wasn't going to look back and have any regrets," explained Rivera, who followed up with a 22-1 tear to earn his second state gold medal.

Rivera was asked if playing football hurt him wrestling-wise.

"Looking back, I took 4-5 months off from the sport I love. The best kids in wrestling wouldn't do that," admitted Rivera. "Football didn't hurt me - it tested me. Football shape is not wrestling shape. It took me a while to get into wrestling shape. But knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have changed my mind. My football experience turned out well."

On his county-record 17 career wins at states, "It was always a dream of mine, even since middle school, I wanted to beat the records set by (former Eagle) Corey Hill and then Cody (Ross)," he said.

On his greatest achievements at Springstead, "I'm most proud our three team (state) titles, especially last year," he said.

As for his future, Rivera plans on competing in the Senior Nationals in a couple of weeks.

He aspires to study business in college.

"I have to thank all my coaches for my Springstead experience," said Rivera. "I've given (head coach) Sal (Basile) 10 heart attacks, but I love the guy.

"I wouldn't be successful without the support of my grandparents and the love from my uncle Chris Soto - those guys have been my rock," he said. "And I have to credit our (wrestling) room. The closer we got toward the state series, the more intense it got in the room. I'm proud of all of my teammates."

Never short of words, Rivera said of his Eagle legacy, "Football taught me how to be a better teammate. In wrestling I never relied on anyone else to get the job done. I want to be remembered as the guy you didn't want to wrestle."

? ? ?

The 2013-14 season was a magical one for the Eagle captain McDonald.

The oldest of five children to Kevin and Jennifer McDonald was born in Brooksville, but is a life-long resident of Spring Hill.

At 5-foot-11 McDonald became the 10th Eagle grappler to go unbeaten en route to a state title.

Despite the Eagles' penchant for ultra-rugged schedules, McDonald has captured the last 10 IBTs he's participated in and 12-of-13 overall. All told, he collected 19 IBT gold medals in three seasons.

McDonald enters his senior year ranked 11th overall at SHS in victories behind a stout 128-16 (.889 winning percentage), highlighted by 87 pins.

His dramatic state final 8-6 overtime win over Brandon frosh Ty Lucas sealed his first-ever gold state gold medal in his third trip to Lakeland.

He'll open his senior year riding a personal-best 45-match win skein.

McDonald was 6 when he began his life on the mats.

"I used to play football at Veterans Memorial Park with Matt (Landgraff) and Jordan (Rivera)," recalled the 17-year-old McDonald. "Those guys kept urging me to come out and wrestle. I don't ever regret a day of being out there."

On what he loves most, "I enjoy the competition and I love winning," McDonald said. "It's a sport where you put all the work in all week long and reap the benefits during the weekend."

On being tabbed Co-Wrestler of the Year, "It's nice to share it with Jordan and Jesse," said McDonald. "Jordan's been such a good captain."

McDonald's rise was a stark contrast to past results at states.

"Last year, I fell short of my goal (as a state champion). This time, I treated every tournament the same," noted McDonald. "I didn't put a target on my back; I just went out there and wrestled."

Similar to Rivera, the turning point of the season for "Big Mac" was in Osceola County.

"When I beat two state champions in one day (pinning Southwest Ranches-Archbishop McCarthy senior Radley Gillis in 3:48 and decisioning Southwest Miami frosh Franco Valdes, 5-2)," recalled McDonald. "That's when I started believing."

McDonald's motivation centered on his previous disappointments. In 2012, McDonald failed to place at states. A year later, McDonald lost in the state semifinals to Lake City-Columbia's Cole Schreiber, 7-6.

He was so mentally stunned he was stuck in his first consolation match at The Lakeland Center. He captured his last match to place fifth.

"I never wanted to feel like I did last year," insisted McDonald. "That day haunted me. Since that day, I've done everything possible to never feel that way again."

McDonald's current focus is to go to Virginia Beach and win, and come back next season and go undefeated and win states again.

"I think we can make another (state) run," predicted McDonald. "We'll get Matt (Landgraff) and Conor (Ross) back, plus we've got a bunch of talented freshmen coming in."

? ? ?

Similar to McDonald, Gaudin's previous false steps in the state series served as ammunition for a bountiful and self-fulfilling senior year.

Tracing Gaudin's tracks, one gets a better sense of why he concluded his fourth and final campaign as Hernando High's 14th state champion and the 45th member of the Hernando County wrestling community atop the podium at states.

As a freshman, the 6-foot-1, athletically gifted and multi-sport Gaudin lost his first-round district match. Despite throttling The Villages senior Alex Bowers, he accidentally dropped him on his head.

Bowers' coach insisted at the time that his grappler could not continue - as a result of the "illegal slam." Gaudin was handed a first-round loss and dropped into the loser's bracket.

After a second-round pin, Gaudin was stuck by Gulf senior Chris Palasky in 3:25.

As a result, Gaudin suffered a second loss in the double-elimination affair and was ousted from the state series.

As a sophomore in his first regional, he learned yet another lesson in 2A-Region II, aka the "Region of Doom," at St. Cloud.

Gaudin captured his first two matches - one by a pin, one via a major decision - entering the second-day semifinals.

But drawing conservative, Gaudin lost his next two matches. Had he won either match he would have qualified for states - instead he was bounced.

Now, flash back to the 2013 state tourney at Lakeland.

After winning his first match, Gaudin faced Tampa-Jesuit junior Austin Underwood. The same Underwood he wrecked, 12-6, during his splendid gold-medal performance at Ippolito the year before.

This time, Underwood reduced the match to a crawl. In a tactical match, he sprung behind Gaudin in the final 10 seconds for a critical two-point takedown and a one-point win, 4-3. With the win, Underwood reached the state finals.

Gaudin, however, recomposed himself to capture four straight matches to earn a third-place bronze medal.

Utilizing the loss to Underwood as his Northern Star, Gaudin set his compass toward Lakeland in 2013-14.

What followed was a spectacular 49-3 run.

Despite practically needing a machete to hack his way through a brutal bracket, Gaudin eventually solved Fort Myers-Southwest Florida Christian senior Noah Huxley for the state title.

It didn't matter that Underwood garnered his gold in 2A at 285 pounds; Gaudin had reached the top of the prep mountain, too.

"Losing to Underwood last year was one source of motivation," declared Gaudin. "My turning point this year was when I lost to (Sarasota senior Tobias) Baker at the Belleview Duals. I hadn't been taken down up to that match. That match proved to me that I was not unbeatable and that I had to work that much harder to achieve my goals.

"Guys like Baker (who beat Gaudin twice this winter, and captured the 2A 220 state title) are the types of guys I knew I'd face at states. It served as a great wake-up call."

The All-County selection in wrestling, football and weightlifting is now casting his sights on his future.

"My favorite sport is a tie between wrestling and football," explained the 18-year-old Gaudin. "I football I play both sides of the line, but I prefer defense. You run around and hit people - that's something I like.

"In wrestling, it's a lot different. It's more of a one-on-one deal," said Gaudin, who was born in Fort Lauderdale, but moved to Brooksville when he was 4. "When you're on the mat, it's all on you. You practice all week for paydays on the weekends."

At this point, Gaudin believes he'll be playing football somewhere next fall.

As an outstanding student/athlete, Gaudin has plenty of options due to his unweighted 3.7 grade point average and weighted 4.08 GPA.

If graduation were held tomorrow at HHS, Gaudin would rank 17th in a class numbering approximately 350.

"I'd go out of state if I had to," said Gaudin of his future plans. "But I think my best options are to stay in state."

The former Challenger K-8 student, who played football, basketball and threw the shot put and discus on the track and field team there, doesn't quibble about his grades.

"Academics are the important thing in school," said Gaudin. "To me, athletics is a gateway to other opportunities."

Gaudin isn't 100 percent certain of his career path, but "something in the medical field, like physical therapy" appears to be in the cards, he said.

Summing up his HHS experience, "It was a great experience," he said. "I achieved a lot of things. It was everything I thought it would be. Looking back four years ago, I never expected to win states, but I worked very hard and accomplished it."

On his legacy, "I want to be remembered as a good teammate and good friend," he said. "But I also want to be remembered as a state champion."

By the numbers: Springstead's Jordan Rivera (2010-14)

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO

YEAR W L .PCT PINS

2010-11+% 44 9 .830 24

2011-12+% 36 6 .857 15

2012-13$%^ 45 4 .918 25

2013-14$%^ 38 4 .905 20

TOTALS 163 23 .876 84

% Denotes All-County selection.

^ Denotes Co-Wrestler of the Year.

+ Denotes state placer (3rd) x 2

$ Denotes state champion

By the numbers: Hernando's Jesse Gaudin (2010-14)

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO

YEARS W L .PCT PINS

2010-11 21 10 .677 12

2011-12* 33 04 .892 18

2012-13+* 43 02 .956 26

2013-14$*^ 49 03 .942 30

TOTALS 146 19 .885 86

% Denotes All-County selection.

^ Denotes Co-Wrestler of the Year.

+ Denotes state placer (3rd)

$ Denotes state champion

By the numbers: Springstead's Michael McDonald (2011-14):

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO

YEAR W L .PCT PINS

2011-12*% 36 11 .766 24

2012-13+% 48 5 .906 33

2013-14$%^ 44 0 1.000 30

TOTALS 128 16 .889 87

% Denotes All-County selection.

^ Denotes Co-Wrestler of the Year.

* Denotes state qualifier

+ Denotes state placer (5th)

$ Denotes state champion

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