Central High School
TONY CASTROThe offseason was not kind to Hernando County wrestling.
Published: November 14, 2012
Published: November 14, 2012
In 2011-12, two county mat squads – Springstead and upstart Nature Coast – placed among the top six at the 48th annual Class 2A FHSAA Finals in Polk County. Four local programs were represented at the sport's most coveted site.
The Spring Hill-based Eagles achieved what no other Hernando County athletic program had ever accomplished in 87 years: capture back-to-back state titles.
Over the next six months, the winds of change, however, shrouded the mat landscape.
On the eve of the county's first tournament on Saturday – the 16-team Weeki Wachee Duals – the local terrain has been altered. How much so?
Consider this past offseason where three head coaches have departed: Springstead's Eric Swensen, Hernando's Bill Combs Sr. and Central's Rich Drumheller.
More importantly, of Hernando County's best-ever 20-man contingency at states, 13 state qualifiers are not back this year including perhaps the greatest county grappler across four decades – Cody Ross, who is competing at the University of North Carolina
Springstead received the harshest setback losing not only Swensen but also five state placers, including a trio of state champs (Ross, Sean Redman and John Dreggors) and two state runners-up: Thomas Gupton and Josh Herrera.
All five were All-County picks. Both Ross and Redman also shared Wrestler of the Year honors while Swensen was the six-time defending Coach of the Year.
While the others graduated, Herrera's family relocated from Hernando County.
Despite the loss of Swensen, who completed an eight-year run at 101-11 (90 percent) in dual meets, and captured 41 tournament victories, the cupboard is far from bare.
Fortunately for Eagles' fans, Swensen's right-hand man, Eagle alumnus Sal Basile, accepted the position of Springstead's fourth head coach in Year 33.
Springstead was fortunate to have a mentor with outstanding credentials in the wings. Basile was a two-time district champ, who also captured a regional title and advanced to states twice. In 1993, the year he graduated from Springstead, he placed third at states.
Basile clearly understands the Eagles' previous dominance under Hall of Fame head coach Bob Levija, and is one of the key reasons why he and Swensen have elevated this team.
In turn, Basile received some unexpected help from rival Hernando when the Hall of Fame skipper Combs, along with his sons Charley and Michael, joined the Eagles' coaching staff this winter.
Basile did not attempt to sugarcoat the Eagles' offseason losses or their current predicament.
"We knew we were going to lose Cody (Ross), (Sean) Redman and (John) Dreggors, but not Josh (Herrera). His loss was disconcerting because he was only a freshman," lamented Basile. "Depth is crucial to everybody, not just us. We'll have to fill a few more gaps in some more weight classes."
On what Basile likes and dislikes about his current squad, "We're super young overall. Those new guys have a lot of potential," he said. "What we've preached is we need to win the most improved awards every week."
The backbone of an Eagle team that captured seven tournaments last winter is the return of six, solid state qualifiers from last season including: sophomores Matt Landgraff (33-12 in 2011-12), Mike McDonald (36-11) and Conor Ross (35-9), junior Jordan Rivera (36-6), and seniors Stephen Pavao (27-11) and Joe Russo (34-11).
McDonald, Ross, Rivera, Pavao and Russo are all returning All-County selections. Rivera is a two-time pick.
On whether Springstead could carve out a state three-peat at The Lakeland Center hinges on the development of the rest of the team: sophomores Robert Holdway, Andrew Smith and Billy Swift, and juniors Austin Stock and Corey Humphrey.
Of this quintet, Humphrey went 9-5 while Holdway and Smith both finished 0-1 in 2011-12.
A handful of Eagle football players are also expected to fill roles once their state playoff run is completed.
As far as who'll capture the 49th Class 2A title, "That's been the hot topic online," described Basile. "Lake Gibson had two kids move in that really have helped their lineup. Riverdale is also expected to have a lot of returnees.
"I don't think we're the favorites right now."
Last winter, Nature Coast arrived in prime time. Besides its 22-7 dual-meet mark, the Sharks finished third in 2A-7, third in the Region of Doom - aka 2A-Region II – and sixth out of 84 teams at states.
In a watershed performance, Nature Coast sent six grapplers to states and returned home with four state placers.
Five state qualifiers graduated including: Cameron Tull (fourth), Carter Bolesta, Mitch Lambert (fourth), Carlos Carrasquillo (third) and Peter Holloman. And that's not counting heavyweight Greg Jarque III, who finished one win shy of advancing to states. He earned a collegiate wrestling scholarship this year along with Bolesta and Carrasquillo.
Ninth-year Shark skipper Mike Lastra is now the dean of Hernando County grappling mentors. He enters the current campaign 104-102 lifetime. More importantly, despite the loss of 11 Sharks from last year's roster, Nature Coast returns 14 lettermen, including six starters.
The Sharks' clear-cut leader is senior Sean Nguyen.
Nguyen enters his fourth varsity campaign at 104-39 lifetime, featuring 60 pins. Nguyen won regionals last winter before placing fourth at states.
Nguyen enters his final season standing seventh in total matches at Nature Coast (143), third in career wins (104) and tied for third in pins (60). All these marks should belong to him by the end of the season.
"Sean (Nguyen) has set the tone for us since he arrived," brags Coach Lastra. "This is the year he puts it all together. He was an All-American at Virginia Beach this summer. He's ready to be that guy."
Besides Nguyen, Nature Coast returns five starters: seniors Brandon Vovan (37-21), Dylan Savoury (30-24), Shane Reeger (28-22) and Gage Coddington (6-5), and junior Luis Espinosa (29-16).
Espinosa was injured at the tail end of football season and is not expected to be medically cleared until late December.
Eight Shark returning lettermen include: sophomores Raiven Alicea (9-8), Mark Espinosa (1-0), Kam Faulkenberry (1-0), Christian Fekete (1-1), Jeremy Javicoff (1-1), Peter O'Reilly (8-10), LaShaun Ray (0-1) and Frank Richey (2-0).
On what Coach Lastra likes about his ninth edition, he said, "I like our enthusiasm. We have a lot of young guys who are pretty good athletes. These kids are trying to emulate what we did last year. We've got a great sophomore class. If they all stick to it, we could make some waves."
Accordingly, Lastra's biggest concern is "our youth. That cuts both ways. We need our young guys to step up; they have to make a difference."
Hernando High debuts its county-high 41st season behind its 11th head coach, David Pritz.
Pritz was one of five brothers – all with over 100 career wins – to compete at Hernando. He completed his sensational Leopard career at 149-14 lifetime.
Only his brother Daniel has captured more matches (155) on the school's all-time wins list.
David, who was injured late in his freshman campaign and did not participate in the state series, is a three-time state placer.
His father, Ken Pritz, served as the school's head coach for eight seasons (1980-88).
Pritz inherits a team in a rebuilding cycle. Hernando finished fourth in districts, 18th in regionals and 72nd at states.
Hernando graduated six seniors including its lone state qualifier in 2012: Jared Young. Austin Neff, Zach Sullivan and Zach Pritz also departed after June's commencement exercises.
Just as critical, 10 other lettermen have not returned this winter.
The Purple and Gold is expected to return seven lettermen from last winter including: seniors Canaan Swackard (2-3) and Jacob Curtiss (1-0), juniors Jesse Gaudin (33-4), Brennan Ertl (24-17), Nick Brewer (10-7) and Clint Wilkins (2-10), and sophomore Bailey Mosher (7-15).
Gaudin is the team's lone returning All-County selection this season.
Hernando will open the season a bit short-handed with Swackard, Gaudin and Brewer still participating in the football regional playoffs.
Another expected returning starter, junior Ricky Swain (24-17), suffered a recent ACL injury and is not expected to return this winter.
Another starter, junior Sonnie Genberg (4-1), is expected to join the team after the second nine- week grading period.
"We've got 28 kids out for the team," shared Coach Pritz. "But the majority of them are freshmen. The great thing is they've all worked really hard; it's a scrappy bunch."
On his greatest concern, "It's practically a brand new team. Right now, we're really inexperienced," said Pritz. "We've preached all along that the only thing that matters is the state series beginning with districts."
Season 25 of Bear wrestling features CHS' seventh mentor, Tim Brown. Brown wrestled at Iowa State and with the U.S. Marines.
Brown replaces Drumheller, who sent a grappler to states in each of the past two seasons.
In 2011-12, Central finished fifth in districts, 13th in regionals and 62nd in the 2A Finals.
Central's lone state qualifier last winter, Puerto Rico Nieves (21-8), graduated.
The Bears lost four starters from a year ago and 10 lettermen from their 3-15 team.
Central enters 2012-13 with six returning lettermen: seniors Taylor Cromwell (19-13) and Josh Marquez (5-3), and juniors Brandon Brown (14-16), Anthony DeFranco (12-13), Austin Mestres (8-16) and Jesus Nieves (9-15).
As far as the team's prospects, "It's always about getting a good turnout," emphasized Coach Brown on his current 13-man varsity roster. "At Central, it's all about the ROTC program."
On what he likes most, "I like our level of commitment with this group," said Brown. "The unfortunate problem is a lot of our kids are starting at square one."
Last year in Season 1, the Weeki Wachee Hornets went through typical growing pains.
Weeki Wachee finished 5-15 in duals, placed eighth out of nine teams in 1A-8 and 27th out of 28 teams in regionals. The Hornets were not represented at states.
Eight of the team's 14 varsity grapplers opted not to return this season, including five starters.
Second-year skipper Joe Felice does return six lettermen including four starters: Dante Padilla (22-9), Andrew Vreeland (17-16), Anthony Vines (5-15) and Wyatt DeWayne (2-9).
Felice pins his team's hopes on improvement on Padilla, Vreeland and 14 new members – including nine freshmen.
Felice said of his team's possible success, "With so many freshmen, we can't be results-oriented like we were at Springstead when I wrestled," said Felice. "If they work 110 percent, I'll be proud of each and every one of them. Only through hard work will we improve."