On the eve of the 42nd season of Hernando County’s most successful sport – prep wrestling –
both Springstead and Nature Coast Technical appear poised to make headlines while Central, Hernando and Weeki Wachee rebuild after personnel losses.
Springstead senior Michael McDonald (top) returns as a defending state champion, among seven returning seniors for the Eagles as they seek to improve upon last year’s third-place finish at states. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
For any high school program, placing third at states would be a huge accomplishment. It would trigger a massive celebration, right?
Yet the Mariner Boulevard-based Eagles are anything but typical.
Two winters ago this was the program that hoisted its third straight state championship trophy in Class 2A at The Lakeland Center.
How significant was the achievement? Imagine no Hernando County program in 90 years has ever hoisted two state crowns in one sport.
The Spring Hill mat men have collected more district titles (28) than most schools have collectively sitting in their trophy cases – including a Hernando County-record tying 10 in a row.
After SHS placed third at states last winter, 181 points behind Brandon and 20 points behind state-runner-up Tampa-Jesuit, the Eagles feel rejuvenated this winter.
Despite the loss of one of its all-time aircraft carriers, four-time state placer and two-time defending state champion Jordan Rivera (a career mark of 162-23), and state qualifiers Corey Humphrey and Vincent Buonanno, there’s plenty of optimism.
The Spring Hill crew returns seven seniors highlighted by defending 2A state champion and two-time state placer Michael McDonald, two-time state placer and defending state runner-up Billy Swift, state placer (third) Andrew Smith, two-time state placers (fifth and sixth) Matt Landgraff and Conor Ross (second and third), and regional qualifiers Quentin D’Alessandro and Robert Holdway.
Ross (84-14 overall), a two-time All-County selection in wrestling and four-time pick in football, missed the entire 2013-14 season due to an anterior cruciate ligament tear. He’s completely recovered and paced the county in tackles this fall.
Landgraff (118-23, 70 pins), who was penciled in to reach the FHSAA Finals, was 0.1 over during weigh-ins (the first time he’d ever missed weight) prior to the regional meet at Brandon and therefore had his third postseason run curtailed.
The Eagles also return four starters featuring: sophomores Richie Rivera, Travis Williams, Matt Lindsey and Daniel Erwin.
SHS’ growing enthusiasm is based on a sea of fresh faces (41) in the wrestling room. As a result, the Eagles will fill a complete junior varsity team for the first time in years.
Yet, the task ahead for the North Suncoast’s finest mat program is arduous to say the least.
Legendary coach Russ Cozart’s Brandon High team has reeled off 14 consecutive state championships in a row, and holds the state record with 25 overall.
Besides Brandon, 2A also features a loaded Jesuit, perennial power Lakeland-Lake Gibson and Jensen Beach.
“At this point, I see seven seniors and seven young guys,” summed up third-year SHS skipper Sal Basile. “But I feel real excited at where we’re at. It’s a completely different feeling than I had going into last season.
“One big thing is our football guys have been with us since their season ended,” he said. “That helps us build the competition in the room from top to bottom. Another big boost is our overall numbers are way up. That huge freshman class has a lot to do with that.”
The additional numbers have Basile euphoric.
“I’m even excited about having a 20-man JV team,” Basile said. “There are some real athletic-looking kids in that group.”
The Eagles’ main concern is a traditional one: health.
Like every mentor, Basile hopes his team avoids major injuries and peaks for the March 13-14 state finals set for Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
Basile deflected any chatter about his team’s county supremacy.
“I’m focusing on what we can do,” he said. “Nature Coast has an older group, Weeki Wachee’s numbers are up and I hear Hernando has a lot of young talent. We’ve got some hammers and we’ll see the county teams at Kiwanis and our place.”
In the postseason, Citrus, which finished as 2A-5 runner-up to SHS, will host districts on Feb. 28.
The following week, 2A’s hierarchy clashes in one stout regional – again set for Brandon.
“South Lake has 3-4 good kids, so that will pump up districts,” noted Basile, Hernando Today’s defending Coach of the Year. “Belleview has guys back, too. Our depth should benefit us. Right now, our lineup is much more solid than it was last year.”
In regionals, “Our region (2A-II) is lights out,” described Basile, a two-time state qualifier at Springstead. “Our goal hasn’t changed; it’s to win regions and states. Last year, we were in a hole before we got to both.”
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The blueprint for Nature Coast’s 11th mat campaign is simple: no excuses.
After a decade of competition, NCT had posted six consecutive winning seasons under 11th-year skipper Mike Lastra.
The Sharks, however, have finished as district runners-up in four of the past five seasons.
Last winter, the California Street mat men agonizingly lost to Pasco in the 1A-6 Tournament at Hernando, 163-157.
Though NCT didn’t graduate one wrestler, it lost junior heavyweight Dean Brooks (40-22 overall), who transferred to Weeki Wachee.
Another starter, senior Joey DeFranco, has opted against competing in his third varsity season, and senior Adrian Rivera was ruled ineligible to begin the season.
Should Rivera’s grades improve, he’s penciled to return to the starting lineup after the second nine-week grading period concludes in January.
On the plus side, NCT returns a county-high 15 lettermen from last winter, including 11 starters.
The Sharks are paced by a trio of returning state qualifiers: seniors Mark Espinosa and Le’Shaun Gray, and junior Anthony Contegiacomo.
Also back in the fold are seniors Jeramie Jazikoff, Raivyn Alicea and Frank Ritchie, and juniors Keegan Davis, Jordan Gibson, Deshawn Smith, Travis Young and Kyle Schaefer.
Returning lettermen include: senior Jesse Trubic and junior James D’Amico.
“This group has the potential to be our best-ever team,” declared Lastra, who is 152-131 overall. “We’ve got a lot of experience and losing the district title so close last year has remained with us. We’re equipped for this year.
“Our goals are to finish in the top three of every tournament we compete in; there are no excuses,” insisted Lastra. “We have to own what we do on the mats; it’s on us and everything starts with me.”
According to Lastra, NCT’s main weapons are Espinosa, Gray and Contegiacomo, or at least until the football players get in shape.
On the county picture, “Springstead is still at the top, but our goal is to compete with them,” said Lastra, a former state qualifier and alumnus from Central. “Hernando will do well because they have some numbers. Weeki Wachee has some solid kids, but I don’t know about their depth.”
As far as 1A-6, “Pasco is the team to beat until someone knocks them off,” Lastra emphatically stated. “It’s a 10-team district and I hear Anclote and Gulf have a lot of kids out.
“Right now, our kids are hungry. I see a fire that was missing last year,” detailed Lastra. “The key for our success is to own up to our potential and our guys can’t lose sight of working hard.”
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Few fans or pundits, for that matter, realize locally that last season’s finest 1A finishers in the county were from Hernando High.
Former Leopard standout David Pritz guided the Purple and Gold to an eighth-place finish.
HHS was paced by a superb 1-2 finish by seniors Jesse Gaudin (163 career victories) and Brennan Ertl (117). That dynamic duo competed for four years and accumulated 263 career wins, including 140 pins.
All told, Hernando lost seven lettermen from last year.
On the plus side, the Leopards return seven lettermen – all returning starters: senior Austin Webber, juniors Abel Terkovich, Johnny Fouts, Lane Whitaker and Robert Graves, along with sophomores Codey Maniates and Dakota Ellerbee.
Of the seven, only Webber at 27-21 with nine pins returns with a winning record from last winter.
Optimism on the Bell Avenue campus stems from the Leopards’ other 33 wrestlers in the room.
“This is my third season and my most competitive lineup top to bottom,” noted Pritz, who is 25-40 lifetime at HHS. “What I like most? We have a lot of kids in the room, a lot of good character kids and they’re all working hard.”
In losing Gaudin and Ertl to graduation, “Those are two huge holes we’ve got to fill,” said Pritz.
With such a massive amount of grapplers, Pritz’s main concerns are keeping the kids out and remaining healthy.
County-wise, Pritz sees no change at the top with Springstead followed by NCT, “But I think we’ll be competitive,” he said.
In 1A-6, “Its Pasco and Nature Coast,” detailed Pritz. “I don’t know where we’ll fall until we get on the mats for real. We’ve only got one senior and we’re a better dual team than individual team.
“For our success, we have to be confident when our guys step on the mats,” he stressed. “The guys have to believe in themselves before they walk out there.”
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Similar to Hernando, Weeki Wachee suffered titanic personnel losses.
WWHS lost six lettermen, including four seniors: Dante Padilla, Jesus Nieves, Jesse Hernandez and Anthony Vines.
The Hornets’ three state qualifiers – Padilla, Nieves and Vines – accounted for 157 wins last winter and 98 pins.
Padilla, who rewrote the Hernando County record for most wins in a single season (54), became the Hornets’ first-ever state placer (sixth) at 120 pounds, while Vines tied the Hernando County mark for most pins in a season (39).
The Hornets return 10 lettermen, including: seniors Gavin Beck and Anthony Hartman, juniors Brandon Smith, Brandon Enoch, Donte Young, Nathaniel DeJesus, Kyle Gathright and Dean Brooks, and sophomores Hunter Gibson and Alex Gomez.
Brooks transferred in from NCT, Hartman hasn’t wrestled since his freshman season and Young last competed two years ago.
Additionally, DeJesus will open the season on the bench nursing a knee sprain. His return is unknown.
The biggest positives include Smith, who needs 15 pins to reset the WWHS school mark of 66 set by Padilla, and 37 victories to surpass Padilla for the school record in career wins (120).
“Overall, we’re real young,” described the former Springstead state qualifier Joe Felice. “We have no seniors. This sets us up well for the future. What I like is we have a lot of hard workers in the room.”
The biggest concern, according to Felice, is who’ll fill the leadership roles.
“Jesus (Nieves) could run for president, he talks so well,” noted Felice. “Right now, we don’t have those vocal leaders in the room.”
Though Central finished winless at 0-11 and competed with only eight grapplers last winter, senior and athletically gifted Brandon Brown placed third at states in 1A at 182.
This time around, Dr. Lewis Curtwright becomes CHS’ eighth coach in 27 seasons, replacing Tim Brown.
Dr. Curtwright, who assisted Hall of Famer Bob Levija at Springstead in the late 1980s and holds a PhD in education, inherits a team with only two returning lettermen: senior John Templar and junior Adam Keister.
Keister went 4-3-2 at the Weeki Wachee Duals II last winter before quitting the team. Templar, who began competing in mid-January, compiled a 5-6 slate.
At press time, Coach Curtwright’s roster featured 28 grapplers – a huge improvement over the past three seasons.
The former mat skipper at Tarpon Springs, Spruce Creek and Countryside wrestled in high school in Ohio.
Curtwright identified his top three as Keister, Templar and sophomore move-in Paul Zummo.
“Adam is probably our most technically sound wrestler,” described Curtwright. “If he decides to make wrestling a priority he’ll be something. Problem is he’s stretched out thin as the Junior Class President, his good grades, and his commitments to football and tennis.
On Templar, “Could be a stud. He’s probably the strongest guy in our room,” said Curtwright. “And the kid hates to lose. He’s been slowed down by a high ankle sprain that he suffered in football. He’s missed practice because of that injury.”
On Zummo, “He’ll be pretty good. He’ll probably cut down to 145 or 152. You can tell he’s wrestled before,” said Curtwright.
On the Bears’ prospects, “We’ve got three guys with any previous experience on the mats. Everyone else is brand new to the sport,” explained Coach Curtwright. “Basically, we’re starting from scratch with this group. Thank goodness, no one is coming in with bad habits.”