When you talk about high school wrestling in Florida, 23-time state champion Brandon is at the top of the list.
But another school — Palm Harbor University — is starting to creep into the Tampa Bay conversation.
Both schools have strong, local clubs that feed into the high school program. And both have multiple shots at individual titles at the state tournament this weekend in Lakeland.
Brandon, which is seeking its 13th straight state crown, has 13 wrestlers competing (six as region champions, five as defending state champions). The Hurricanes are bringing eight, including one region champion, which is impressive considering their region included Brandon.
Eagles coach Russ Cozart admits the competition is getting tighter.
“(Class 3A, Region 2) is one of the toughest years of competition I’ve seen in a while,” Cozart said before last weekend’s meet in Kissimmee. “With these four teams (Brandon, Osceola, PHU, North Port) dominating, it doesn’t leave room for anyone else.”
By the end of the meet, those four schools had claimed region champions in all 14 weight classes.
Still, the Eagles outdistanced the field by 72 points. They ran away with the state title last year by 86 points. And they could continue that trend for years to come as only four of their state qualifiers are seniors.
It’s a daunting task trying to challenge Brandon. PHU finished eighth at state last year, but things are a little different for the Hurricanes now.
PHU wrestlers met Brandon in four finals at regionals, winning one. No one usually survives a head to head against Brandon without at least a bloody nose. Most can’t even stay on the mats with Eagle wrestlers. But PHU is starting to do just that.
It’s best illustrated by a rivalry between 120- and 126-pound wrestlers — Brandon sophomore Dylan Lucas and junior James Flint, and PHU sophomore twins Connor and Jared Prince.
Their matches were the highlight of last year’s state finals. Lucas won a 5-4 decision over Connor Prince; Flint won a 2-1 grudge match over Jared Prince.
“When you lose a match like that it sticks with you,” said Connor, who is ranked second behind Lucas in his weight class for Florida by Scout.com. “You replay it in your mind and think about the mistakes you made, what you can do better next time.”
Jared replays it on the DVD player.
“(Jared) watches a lot of tape,” dad, and assistant coach, Mark Prince said.
Mark Prince, a two-time high school state champion wrestler, noted that neither son took more than two weeks off in 2012.
“(The loss to Flint) drives Jared, all year long,” Hurricanes coach Brad Sakevich said.
Jared, ranked first in his weight class, avenged his defeat by beating Flint 1-0 in the semifinals of the Graves Invitational. He won again at regionals, 3-2, finally getting on top of those tight, low-scoring matches.
Jared has perfected a move he picked up at last year’s Super 32 tournament. He lunges low, going for the foot instead of the leg, which often catches an opponent by surprise. Then Jared yanks the foot toward him, pulling the opponent off balance.
“I got hit with it by the guy that knocked me out of the fifth-place match,” he said. “I tried it a few times in the wrestling room and it started clicking.”
Jared used it in a 19-4 major decision against Steinbrenner’s Ryan Schoel for the district title. Then he got Flint with the same move for the only takedown in his match to win regionals. But Flint said he’ll be ready for him at state.
“It will be a different outcome,” Flint said. “Things happen in matches, you’ve got to make it yours, do what you have to to win.”
Connor has yet to beat Lucas, though he has come close. The loss at regionals was 6-2; last year at states it was a one-point win for Lucas.
“I’m more worried about being on top than standing up (when facing Connor),” Lucas said. “He likes to turn and roll and get into funky positions.”
Fate seems to be guiding these four wrestlers to a massive collision at states.
First, the weight class jumps they took landed them in the right classes to be rivals this season. Last season, Lucas and Connor wrestled at 106 then leapfrogged their teammates three weight classes this year. Flint and Jared, meanwhile, moved up from 113 to 120.
And the rival pairs have landed in different state brackets, making championship showdowns possible.
If PHU can nab a few state medals from the Eagles this weekend, expect this budding team rivalry to become even stronger.
When/where: Friday-Saturday, The Lakeland Center
Admission: $9 per session. Parking is $7.
Friday: Weigh-ins start at 8 a.m. The first round starts at 10, followed by wrestlebacks and second round.
Saturday: Weigh-ins start at 8 a.m. Third round of wrestlebacks starts at 9:30 a.m., followed by the semifinals. Finalists are introduced at 5:15, with finals (on three mats) starting at 5:30.
More online: For first-round pairings, visit fhsaa.org/node/7812