BROOKSVILLE — When Sean Nguyen burst into the Nature Coast lineup as a freshman, the young man was barely 90 pounds, causing coach Mike Lastra to remark, “With his skill and size, he’s going to be one of the best 106-pounders in the area for the next four years.”
Nguyen has made his coach look like a prophet with his meteoric rise to the podium at the Lakeland Center last February in the state championships, earning a fourth-place medal.
He will make his return to Lakeland this weekend with gold as the senior’s goal, but the road to this point hasn’t been without difficulty.
Although he floundered his first season against stronger opponents with a 9-16 record, he became more dedicated after a victory in the district semifinals over future state placer Tony Ruggerio of Wesley Chapel.
“The first year he was 92 pounds soaking wet, and he got beat up a lot,” Lastra said. “He persevered, and by the end of the year he had beaten Tony Ruggerio in the district semifinals, and that’s when he realized he could be good at this sport.”
After losing 10 of his first 11 matches as a sophomore, Nguyen’s improvement began at midseason on the way to a 43-15 record.
Nguyen competed during the offseason in club tournaments before his junior year, honing his mat skills and getting stronger.
“He was already a good finesse wrestler, slick and fast,” Lastra said. “But when he added strength, it helped him out a lot.”
The results were almost immediate. Nguyen set the Hernando County record for junior wins with a 52-8 mark. Although he had to default in the district final because of an injury, he pinned Springstead’s Matt Landgraff in one minute, 14 seconds to capture the region championship.
In his first appearance at the state tournament, there seemed to be no jitters for the Sharks lightweight. He debuted with a 28-second pin of Tallahassee Lincoln’s Jacob Geiger. The momentum carried Nguyen to a fourth-place finish.
After another offseason of hard work and competition, Nguyen was named an All-American in last summer’s National High School Coaches Association Nationals in Virginia Beach, Va. He entered his senior season better than ever and began the 2012-13 season in the 126-pound class.
“Getting to weight this season was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Nguyen said. “I love to eat, but I had to watch what I ate and run every day to get back (to 106).”
He seemed to handle the competition with relative ease. Working his way back down to 106, he continued to win. He qualified for his target weight class in time for districts, but an upset 9-7 decision by Springstead’s Landgraff handed the Nature Coast captain only his second loss.
“You always hear about the season being a grind, but for those guys that have to cut weight it’s even more of a grind,” Lastra said. “He was done mentally. But his loss to Landgraff really opened his eyes, and that loss at district was the best thing that could have happened to him.”
After dominating Landgraff the past two seasons, winning all five previous bouts, Nguyen’s frustration was obvious, and gave him the motivation to respond at regionals. Once again, it came down to the Springstead sophomore and Nguyen in the region final. This time Nguyen dominated on the way to an 8-2 decision.
With a 41-2 record going into this weekend, Nguyen knows he is one of the odds-on favorites and won’t be sneaking up on anyone. Including Landgraff (46-7) and Geiger (41-4), Nguyen will also have to deal with Lake Gibson’s Caleb Smith (24-1) and Fort Lauderdale Archbishop McCarthy’s Radley Gillis (61-1).
“It helps to have wrestled someone before because you have some familiarity with what they like to do,” Nguyen said. “But I still have to go out there and beat them.”
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