SPRING HILL — Since elementary school, Matt Landgraff has had aspirations of winning a state title.
However, his wrestling skills matured much faster than his body. As a freshman and sophomore, he struggled against some of the elite competition even while competing in the 106-pound weight class.
Landgraff still reached the podium at state twice, placing sixth as a freshman and fifth last year. He became one of the most feared lightweights in the state despite the disadvantages of his youth and strength. Those deficits no longer exist.
“Normally I’m like half the size of the kids I wrestle, and now I’m bigger than those kids,” he said. “Instead of always relying on technique, I can use my size to my advantage, too.”
A growth spurt during the offseason has Landgraff looking lean and ready to compete. His presence during practice has changed as well. Landgraff has become the obvious lead dog because of his work ethic and a motor that doesn’t seem to quit.
While two-time state placer and fellow junior Conor Ross split his time between football and wrestling, it was Landgraff and fellow state placer Mike McDonald who showed up every day to train and mentor younger teammates during youth practice.
Ross tore his ACL at the end of the football team's regular-season run to the playoffs, devastating news for the Eagles on the mat. With Jordan Rivera, the team’s lone returning state champion, also playing football for the first time in high school, Landgraff’s early-season performance became even more valuable.
“Matt and Mike are my staples,” Springstead coach Sal Basile said. “We have other strong personalities, but I lean on those guys in the room.”
Landgraff proved up to the task as the Eagles opened their schedule in Ocala last weekend for the seventh annual Forest Wildcats Invitational. Landgraff went 4-0, capturing his sixth career individual tournament victory.
With 86 wins in his Springstead career, Landgraff has a chance to catch all-time Eagles leader, former teammate Cody Ross (186). Older brother Shawn Landgraff, who won a state title in 2011, has 137 wins.
“I was talking to my brother (Shawn) the other day, and it came up that I only have two more years of high school left. Then it’s all over,” he said. “It’s a different feeling to know you’re that guy. You’re not the guy lying in the shadows. You are up front to get stuff done.”
The season goes into full swing for many local programs this weekend with the 32nd annual Kiwanis Invitational at Hernando. Landgraff has reached the finals twice, winning for the first time last season over Pasco’s Kevin Tipton. Ranked second in the state behind Brandon’s Frankie Bruno according to Scout.com, a victory this weekend could mark the start of a run to a gold medal in Lakeland.
“I expect him to be a state champ,” Basile said. “For the first time you are going to see him be a little more of a man and compete with a little more horsepower. That’s what (he’s) built to do.”
32nd annual Kiwanis Invitational
Where: Hernando High, Brooksville
When: Friday — Weigh-ins, 1 p.m.; first round, 3. Saturday — Restart, 10 a.m.; finals, 6 p.m.
Teams: Hernando, Weeki Wachee, Pasco, Land O’Lakes, Lecanto, Gulf, Lake Gibson, Crystal River, Lennard, Robinson, The Villages, Harmony, Springstead, St. Cloud, Durant, Tampa Bay HEAT, Wesley Chapel, Central, Northside Christian, Indian Rocks Christian, Lakeland, Nature Coast
2006-12 champions: Springstead
Favorites: 106 pounds: Matt Landgraff, Springstead; 113: Noah Ridley, Tampa Bay HEAT; 120: Mike McDonald, Springstead; 126: Zac German, Harmony; 132: Regan Haley, Durant; 138: Skyler White, Pasco; 145: Erick Byelick, Indian Rocks Christian; 152: Jordan Rivera, Springstead; 160: Brennan Ertl, Hernando; 170: Colton Jackson, The Villages; 182: Luis Peguero, Robinson; 195: Jonah Nightengale, Lecanto; 220: Jesse Gaudin, Hernando; 285: Andrew Ivey, Pasco