Wrestling: Alex Popke leads Brandon to fourth-place finish in elite Jim Graves Invitational
BRANDON — The lone finalist from Brandon — as well as being the only finalist from the Tampa Bay area — in Saturday’s Jim Graves Invitational made quite an impression as Alex Popke was named as one of two most outstanding wrestlers in an elite tournament that bears the name of the school’s first-ever coach.
Fittingly, Popke, a senior who defeated Georgia Camden’s R.J. Woodard 3-1 in the 182-pound weight class, dedicated the trophy to his late father, Valrico’s Kevin Popke, who at the age of 56 was killed in a September motorcycle accident.
“It means a lot. I know he’d want me to win,” said Popke, who won a title for the first time at the Graves after placing fifth as a junior and not qualifying as a sophomore.
“His dad got him to come out (for wrestling),” Brandon coach Russ Cozart said. “He’s become a year-round wrestler and now he’s filling out and maturing.”
The host Eagles placed fourth for the second straight season in an elite tournament they have not won since 2013. Brandon has 12 wins in a tourney initiated by Cozart in 2002 to honor his mentor and predecessor.
“I’m more balanced this year than (having) individual talent,” Cozart said of his current squad. “We’re down by our standards of a perennial top five, top 10 team in the nation, but we lost to some pretty outstanding teams. We are still good, but we are not unstoppable.”
Camden totaled 678 points to win it. South Dade was the runnerup with 633 and Southwest Miami took third at 465. Brandon scored 452.
Like Brandon, Camden and South Dade have won numerous state championships, which made for some stiff competition.
“Our reputation draws the best,” said Cozart, alluding to his team’s 16 straight state titles and 27 overall. “A lot of teams don’t want to come to this tournament, because it’s one of the best.”