A tale of two champions

In 2012-13, two of Hernando County’s 95 prep varsity wrestlers lived out their dreams, capturing individual gold medals on the state’s largest stage – during the 49th annual FHSAA Finals in Lakeland.

One grappler – Nature Coast senior Brandon Vovan – took advantage of his one and only state appearance to reach the top of the podium. In the process he became the school’s first-ever state champ.

Another grappler – Springstead junior Jordan Rivera – achieved one of the few items he had not checked off his, ’Things to Do List.’ In a sport he has competed in since he was a toddler, Rivera had placed twice at states before reaching the top of the podium.

In his wake, Rivera also clinched Springstead’s county-record third straight state championship.

Rivera, an outstanding athlete, enters his senior season next winter with a lifetime 125-19 won-lost slate (87 percent) behind 64 pins.

The three-time All-County selection ranks 11th all-time in wins at Springstead (125).

He’s been a model of consistency placing in 25-of-26 (96 percent) career IBTs (individual bracketed tournaments) he’s competed in.

Along his path, he’s captured a gold medal in 13 IBTs including: Brooksville-Kiwanis Invitational (thrice) and districts (thrice).

He’s approaching some of the school’s most elite performers. Rivera, 17, is attempting to become the fifth Eagle to capture four district titles joining: Corey Hill, Jimmy Stevenson, C.J. Cook and Cody Ross.

Only Hill (three) and Stevenson (four) have more regional titles than Rivera’s two.

Rivera is also attempting to become the school’s fifth grappler to reach states four times, also joining Hill, Stevenson, Cook and Ross, and is attempting to become the school’s third four-time state placer joining Ross and Hill.

Rivera and teammates Stephen Pavao, Joe Russo and Corey Humphrey are the only Hernando County athletes to have ever been on a team to have captured back-to-back-to-back state titles.

In his best-ever season, the 5-foot-7 Rivera captured a team-best seven IBTs including: Brooksville-Kiwanis, St. Cloud Invitational, Springstead Invitational, Flagler Rotary Invitational, Class 2A, District 7 at Springstead, 2A-Region II at St. Cloud and 2A state finals at The Lakeland Center.

Rivera closed the season riding a 19-match winning streak and finishing 45-4 (92 percent) with 26 pins.

By crushing Melbourne senior Joey Miuccio in the 138-pound final, 12-3, Rivera became Springstead’s county-record 26th state champion.

Area coaches were unanimous in their selection of Rivera and Vovan as co-Wrestlers of the Year.

“Jordan arrived at states fresh from three pins in regionals. Going into the state finals, however, Jordan had wrestled subpar,” described Springstead’s first-year mentor Sal Basile. “He started getting flu-like symptoms the day before states. He had trouble breathing.

“What I liked most was how he elevated his game for the finals. He’s a guy who thrives on attention and when the spotlight is the brightest. A lot of guys couldn’t handle his situation. By winning states for the first time, he’s beginning to live up to his own high expectations.

“The good thing is there’s still room for growth. The key? He’s got to stay hungry.”

“I’ve known Jordan for a long time. He’s a freakishly talented athlete,” added Hernando High’s first-year skipper and three-time state qualifier David Pritz. “By winning states, he’s stepping up to his potential.

“I don’t know how many guys would have been able to do what he did and step up with the tournament in the balance. Few people could step up and do what he did when it really mattered.”

Rivera recalled the final conversation he had with Coach Basile before stepping into the circle against Miuccio.

“Coach told me he needed me to step up and be a leader,” recalled Rivera. “Honestly, I couldn’t have been more confident. After I spoke with Sal and (assistant coach) Charley (Combs), I was ready.

“I loved the pressure of the moment. It really gave me a rush,” said Rivera. “I wasn’t nervous at all. I went into the match relaxed and real calm. I wanted to get it over with.”

Upon finally receiving the coveted state gold medal, “It’s like all the hard work paid off,” suggested Rivera. “I thought I had paid my dues losing here as a freshman and sophomore – but I lost to great kids.”

On what his encore might be, “Next year starts right now,” explained Rivera. “I want that feeling again. I also realize the minute I step on the mats that there’s a target on my back.”

For those folks who believe Springstead backed into a state title when Lakeland-Lake Gibson and Boca Raton-Olympics Heights faltered during the 11th hour at states, “I’m used to seeing our guys at the top of the podium,” acknowledged Rivera. “A lot of people thought we wouldn’t win this year. But we’re well-coached and no one works harder than we do in the room.”

On his future goals, “I’m going into next year with a 2.6 grade point average. That’s not good enough,” Rivera explained. “My goal is to step up in the classroom as well.

“I think the key during my senior year is to stay hungry,” explained Rivera. “When I lost at the Knockout Classic (in Osceola) that was the low point in my season. I remembered that losing feeling; it fueled me for the rest of the year.”

Vovan’s mat career has gone full circle.

As a freshman, he finished a quiet 0-2.

In his first full season as a sophomore, he finished 13-18 (42 percent) with eight pins.

During his breakout junior campaign, Vovan registered a 37-21 slate (64 percent) with 23 pins.

This past season as a senior, the agile and 6-foot-2 Vovan put it all together.

In all, he captured five IBTs (Brooksville-Kiwanis, Lakeland Holiday, 2A-7, 2A-II and 2A states) and pieced together a personal-best 14-match winning skein – the school’s fourth-longest.

Similar to Rivera, Vovan closed the season with a fury behind an 11-match winning skein – including all 10 bouts during the 2013 state series to become Nature Coast’s first-ever state champion.

Vovan’s fourth season concluded with a magical run posting a team-best and career-best 45-5 record (90 percent) behind 23 pins.

By comparison, before this season Vovan had never captured a district title nor had he ever qualified for states.

By defeating Lehigh Acres’ senior Jabari Irons in the 160-pound state final, 6-2, Vovan became Hernando County’s 42nd state champion across 41 seasons.

Afterward, there was no loss of admirers.

“Vovan’s season was like a Hollywood script. He’s certainly paid his dues and put in the time on the mat,” described Nature Coast’s eighth-year mentor Mike Lastra.” He’d always been in someone else’s shadow until he put it all together this year.

“Just how well did he wrestle? Well, four of his five losses were to state finalists (Gulf’s Spencer Baxter (twice), Palm Harbor-University’s Aaron Hartman and The Villages’ Colton Jackson).”

On the recalling Vovan’s win and the significance of the event, “Against Irons, he was never in danger. He controlled the match,” pointed out Coach Lastra. “This (state title) means so much for our program. It legitimizes everything we do. It allows everyone to believe in his dream. There’s always some doubt until someone breaks through.

“Brandon truly deserves this. He’s a terrific student/athlete. … His name will be the one no one ever forgets. I still get goose bumps recalling when they draped that gold medal around his neck.”

“When you see Vovan, it’s proof of the process. If you do everything right, you see the end results with him,” noted Coach Basile. “I’m really happy for the kid. … When you bust your butt, you’ll get rewarded.

“He was out there for four years and paid his dues. He did a good job of controlling a match.”

“He was a completely different wrestler this year,” added Pritz. “You judge athletes on how they find a way to win. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters – that’s Brandon in a nutshell.”

Turns out Vovan’s mother, Lora, might have been his finest sounding board.

“What an amazing journey; it was well worth the ride,” explained Mrs. Vovan. “For every tournament that started at 10 o’clock in the morning and ended at 9 p.m., I was there. I saw him grow up as a leader and as a young man. I brought a young boy into the sport, but I hugged a young man at states.

“It’s the truth. Wrestling has done so much for Brandon,” she said. “I’m so proud of him.”

On recalling the final seconds melt down on the Jenkins Arena clock in beating Irons, “My heart was broken for him,” recalled Mrs. Vovan. “I never doubted that he would win that last match. When the clock struck 0:00, I started balling. When he jumped into coach’s arms, I screamed at the top of my lungs.

“I realize there will be other state champions at Nature Coast, but Brandon will always be the first.”

On his own reaction, “Winning was awesome,” Brandon said. “Before states, I didn’t get a whole lot of looks. Now, kids are coming up to me that I don’t know and congratulating me. And my name went on the marquee at school – that’s pretty cool, too.”

On what the state gold medal meant, “It told me that I arrived,” recalled Vovan. “Winning states was the goal coming in. When I first started wrestling I put state champions on another level. It’s weird for me to think I’m one of those guys now.”

On where the notoriety will carry him, “Being a state champ is special, there’s no doubt,” said Vovan. “I genuinely take a lot of pride in the accomplishment. My future isn’t really clear. It would be awesome if I could wrestle in college.”

On what the 18-year-old Vovan would explain to the crop of newbies in the Sharks wrestling room, he said, “I tell the newbies all the time, ‘You got to keep with it.’ It’s hard to be great in this sport. The first thing is you have to buy into the system. You get out of wrestling, what you put in.”

Maybe his mother summed up her son’s mat success the best, saying, “Brandon proved that if he could do it (win states), than anyone can do it.”

By the Numbers: Springstead’s Jordan Rivera (2010-13)

– 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

TOTALS 125 19 .868 64

+ Denotes state placer (3rd) x 2

$ Denotes state champion

By the Numbers: NCT’s Brandon Vovan (2009-13)

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

YEAR W L .PCT PINS

2009-10 0 2 .000 0

2010-11 13 18 .419 8

2011-12 37 21 .638 23

2012-13$ 45 5 .900 23

TOTALS 95 46 .674 54

$ Denotes state champion

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