In the simplest terms, Lakeland-Lake Gibson's mat program is tired of being left at the altar. Literally, the Braves are fed up being labeled second best.
Through 48 FHSAA Finals, the Polk County program has never raised the tallest trophy. That drought, however, could conclude Feb. 16.
To that end, for the first time since 2008, Lake Gibson is returning to this weekend's new and improved two-day, 24-team, 31st annual Brooksville-Kiwanis Invitational at Hernando High with a singular mission.
"We're not coming there to go top three," explained veteran Braves mentor Danny Walker, whose team has placed third (2010), followed by back-to-back second-place (2011-12) finishes at Jenkins Arena at The Lakeland Center during the past three Class 2A state finals.
"We're not going to be happy with second," declared Walker. "We want to see where we're at."
Make no mistake; the Polk County mat men have purposely scheduled a return trip to Michael A. Imhoff Gymnasium.
All five Hernando County teams will also be competing in the North Suncoast's longest-running mat tournament.
The two-day event begins at 3 p.m. today and runs until 10 p.m.
Saturday's action begins with semifinals at 10 a.m. – unless any of Friday night's late second-round wrestlebacks do not get completed - across the four mats.
Wrestlebacks will immediately follow the semis. Consolation finals are set for 4:30 p.m. followed immediately by the finals.
The 24-team field is expected to include: Ocala-West Port, Tampa-Robinson, Tampa-Jefferson, Tampa-Freedom, Tampa Bay Christian Academy, Central, Nature Coast, Springstead, Weeki Wachee, Gulf, Wesley Chapel, Crystal River, Lecanto, Belleview, Citra-North Marion, Ocala-Trinity Catholic, Valrico-Bloomingdale, Gainesville-Buchholz, Pasco and host Hernando.
In their last visit in 2008, the Braves pushed seven into the finals and captured five gold medals.
Despite an outstanding team performance, the Braves finished runner-up to Springstead by 25 points, 252.5-227.5.
"That's kind of been our story," lamented Walker. "We've been very good over the past few years … just not good enough (to win states)."
After last season, Walker decided to revamp his schedule. He thought his team overlooked some of the squads in the "Region of Doom" – 2A-II.
"Last year, we didn't see all the teams in our region until (regionals at) St. Cloud," recalled Walker. "Looking back, that was a mistake; that's not happening again. This year our approach is to see everybody. Because of that, I think Kiwanis will be a much more competitive tournament than in the past few years."
According Walker, "Our motto this year is to leave no stone unturned. Our goal is to be prepared for February."
For good reason, 1A-District 8 competitor Gulf has also been touted by several coaches as a team to watch this weekend.
Head coach Travis Dewalt understands the significance of this tournament.
As a sophomore at Gulf, he captured the tourney's OSW award in 1988 at 112 pounds.
"To me, this is a great holiday tournament," explained Dewalt, whose team has never won this event, but placed as high as second in 2009. "This is our first IBT (individual bracketed tournament). After Saturday night this will tell us where we're at, and more importantly what we need to work at and concentrate on."
On the stout field, "This isn't (last week's Cougar Invitational hosted by) Durant, but with Lake Gibson, Springstead, Pasco, Robinson and us – it's a pretty good field," remarked Coach Dewalt. "I think the top two, Springstead and Lake Gibson, will separate themselves from everybody else. But the next three, 3-5, will be real close."
Springstead certainly has something to prove this weekend.
The Eagles are coming off an uncharacteristic eighth-place finish in the 25-team, 17th annual Cougar Invitational.
How stout was that two-day event in Hillsborough County?
Consider the state's top three 2A teams from last year's – Springstead, Lake Gibson and Fort Myers-Riverdale – combined for three finalists. And imagine that was accomplished without 23-time state champion Brandon in the house.
Despite competing with only nine grapplers at Plant City, Springstead returned home with four placers – including one gold medalist.
The Mariner Boulevard mat men have collected 16 tourney titles at Hernando along with a meet-best 221 placers, featuring 97 champions.
First-year Eagle skipper Sal Basile expects his team to bounce back from the aberration at Durant.
"We've really focused on our conditioning and time management since last weekend," noted Basile. "We dropped some matches because we weren't in shape and we didn't know the situation; hopefully we've addressed some of those concerns.
"Our young guys will make young mistakes," pointed out Basile. "That's to be expected. What we're trying to do is reinforce our technique. As bad as last weekend was for us, we've had three monster days of practice since. I really believe our conditioning will be much better."
Unlike last week, when Springstead entered Plant City short-handed, look for the Eagles to arrive in Brooksville with 13 members, featuring seven returning starters from this event last winter: seniors Joe Russo at 145 and Stephen Pavao at 120; juniors Jordan Rivera at 138 and Corey Humphrey at 220; and sophomores Matt Landgraff at 106, Michael McDonald at 113 and Conor Ross at 170.
Four Eagles have never lost at Kiwanis. Springstead's four returning champs include: Rivera (8-0 with six pins), Russo and McDonald (4-0), and Ross (3-0).
Last winter, when Springstead completed Kiwanis with 11 placers, Landgraff finished 2-1 (second), Pavao went 3-1 (third) while Humphrey went 2-2 and failed to place fourth or better.
Another good omen: Both Russo and Pavao, who missed last week's meet at Durant due to illness, have practiced all week.
Springstead is expected to fill every weight class except 285.
Rivera is attempting to become the first member of his storied grappling family to reach the top of the podium for a third time at Kiwanis.
"I'm looking for a three-peat," admitted the 17-year-old Rivera. "This is a family streak I want to beat. Not even (his cousin) Nick (Soto) won this tournament three times
"t's cool to be wrestling in a tournament so close to home. I get to sleep in my own bed. Everybody's more comfortable and you're used to your surroundings competing at Hernando."
Ross added, "I enjoy wrestling at Hernando. Yeah, I'm looking forward to Kiwanis."
McDonald enters Kiwanis with a team-best 10-0 slate with seven pins.
McDonald will be competing in the toughest class weight in the building with nine state-ranked grapplers expected at 113.
Five state-ranked competitors are anticipated in both 170 and 285.
"It should be a great field," predicted Coach Basile. "You throw in Lake Gibson and trust me I don't see us walking through anything."
The difference, according to Basile, "Will again be our no-name guys," he pointed out. "Our veterans have to be the big dogs. But in this tournament, it's got to be a team effort including our younger dogs. Our young guys carried the day (two weeks ago) at Deltona; they've got to do better than they did at Durant."
Nature Coast, which opened the season going 6-1 and placing third at the Weeki Wachee Duals, hasn't competed since.
Ninth-year mat skipper Mike Lastra has watched his troops ascend the Kiwanis ranks from 19th in 2005 to second last winter.
Nature Coast has entered 82 grapplers at Kiwanis over the past seven years, but is 0-for-82 in returning home with a gold medal.
The Sharks had one wrestler. Carter Bolesta, reach the Kiwanis finals until last winter. A year ago, Nature Coast pushed seven into the finals, but dropped every match.
The Brooksville mat squad that finished sixth in states at 2A returns four starters this winter, including: seniors Sean Nguyen at 113, Shane Reeger at 132, Brandon Vovan at 160 and Dylan Savoury at 182.
Junior Luis Espinosa at 138 is still recovering from a football injury and will not be in the lineup.
Nguyen has placed runner-up at Kiwanis the past two winters and is 7-2 lifetime at Hernando.
Vovan is also a returning Kiwanis placer. He finished fourth in 2011 and is 5-4 lifetime at Hernando.
Lastra readily admits his squad is tired of practicing against each other.
Lastra's best bets to place include his four seniors.
"Our seniors have the best chance to place," said Lastra. "We've got three other guys that need to come around for us to do well. I look at the Nguyen/McDonald rematch (McDonald throttled Nguyen 10-2 last winter in the 113-pound final) as a premier match. Sean has been looking forward to this match."
On the tourney's makeup, "Lake Gibson and Springstead should be the top two teams," forecasted Lastra. "Gulf and Pasco will be tough, too. I'd like us to finish in the top four. I don't want to lower our expectations.
"This is a big tournament. Everybody in our district will be here except for Citrus.
"We're selling this as 'Who wants to be our first Kiwanis champion?'" said Lastra. "We're healthy and ready to go."
Host Hernando finished fifth at Kiwanis last winter fashioning 24 wins in 43 bouts, including 14 pins.
Three of the Purple and Gold's four Kiwanis placers from last year graduated.
Jesse Gaudin is the lone returning champ and enters with a career 6-2 Kiwanis mark.
Junior Nick Brewer, at 182, will be making his third Kiwanis appearance and stands 4-4 lifetime.
Brennen Ertl (2-4 at Kiwanis), Bailey Mosher (0-2) and Mike Ulloa (0-2) are all returning starters.
Additionally, Ulloa arrives with a team-best 11-1 slate, featuring six pins.
Hernando, which has captured this event once (2003 under Matt Smith), has notched 116 placers, featuring 37 Kiwanis champions.
HHS' first-year head coach David Pritz understands the legacy of this tournament. Pritz earned the tourney's OSW award in 2004-05.
The Purple and Gold are attempting to finish in the top 10 for the 17th straight season.
"We really don't have to sell this tournament to our guys," noted Pritz. "The guys know this is our house and you don't want to get beat in front of your family and friends. Coming off of Sebastian River (last week), we had our best practice of the season Monday – so that's a good sign."
On the Leopards' best bets to place Pritz indicated, "Jesse (Gaudin), Ertl and Ulloa. Bailey could sneak up, but he's in a super tough weight class (113). And Brewer could place depending on which Brewer shows up; he's very capable of placing."
On the expected final team standings, "Lake Gibson and Springstead will end up in the top two – I just don't know what order," said Pritz. "I see Gulf, Robinson, Pasco and even Crystal River right behind those top two teams
"I think we definitely should finish in the top 10 and get more than one guy in the finals."
Second-year Weeki Wachee's Brandon Smith, a freshman, enters Kiwanis as the Hernando County leader in wins (12). He's also tied for first with Ertl and Mosher in pins (eight).
Junior Dante Padilla and senior Wyatt DeWayne are the lone returning starters from last year's Kiwanis tourney – where Weeki Wachee finished 18th in the 20-team field.
A rash of early-season injuries has hampered the Hornets' progression. One of their best grapplers, junior Andrew Vreeland at 152, will not be Kiwanis due to a shoulder injury.
On where the Hornets are before entering Hernando, "We're not mentally tough right now," explained Weeki Wachee's second-year skipper Joe Felice, a 1993 Springstead alumnus and former state qualifier.
"Our best bet to place has to be Brandon (Smith). I'd mention Dante too, but 113 is absolutely loaded with studs. He's not even going to get seeded. Those are our two best guys. I'm not throwing in the towel on anybody else, but some of the other guys have to step up."
Like Nature Coast, Central has not competed since opening the season at 1-5 at the Weeki Wachee Duals.
Central finished 12th at Kiwanis last winter with one placer: Taylor Cromwell (third) at 220.
The Bears are making their 20th visit to Kiwanis. Over the first 19 visits, they've had 64 placers and 10 individual champions.
The last two Bears to garner gold were Bucky Solomon and Sergio Matos in 2002.
Central's finest Kiwanis finish was third in 1993.
First-year head coach Tim Brown did not return a call for this story.
Central is expected to return five grapplers from past Kiwanis tourneys including Cromwell (8-3 lifetime with seven pins), senior Josh Marquez (3-2), and juniors Brandon Brown (1-2), Brandon Dunn (1-2) and Austin Mestres (0-2).
Past Brooksville-Kiwanis Tournament Champions
YEAR SCHOOL POINTS
2011 Spring Hill-Springstead 302.5
2010 Spring Hill-Springstead 287.5
2009 Spring Hill-Springstead 317.5
2008 Spring Hill-Springstead 252.5
2007 Spring Hill-Springstead 228.5
2006 Spring Hill-Springstead 234.0
2005 Gainesville 243.0
2004 Bunnell-F. Palm Coast 209.5
2003 Brooksville-Hernando 203.0
2002 Tampa-Sickles 156.0
2001 Spring Hill-Springstead 179.0
2000 Spring Hill-Springstead 208.5
1999 Spring Hill-Springstead 209.0
1998 Lecanto 189.0
1997 Spring Hill-Springstead 252.0
1996 Spring Hill-Springstead 214.5
1995 Spring Hill-Springstead 241.0
1994 New Orleans, LA-Jesuit 226.0
1993 Lakeland Senior 173.0
1992 Spring Hill-Springstead 210.0
1991 Mechanicsburg, PA 178.0
1990 Spring Hill-Springstead 175.0
1989 Spring Hill-Springstead 206.5
1988 Spring Hill-Springstead 211.5
1987 Land O'Lakes 147.0
1986 New Orleans, LA-Jesuit 162.5
1985 Leesburg 157.0
1984 Englewood-Lemon Bay 215.0
1983 Tampa-Leto 213.0
1982 Brandon 206.5