PALM HARBOR — The air inside the Palm Harbor University wrestling room is so thick that the windows are blanketed with fog. The mats are soaked with sweat and the room resonates with fourth-year coach Brad Sakevich’s booming voice.
Each wrestler is crouched low, sparring with a teammate. Some of the kids are swatting at thighs while others are entangled. Practice is intense.
Sakevich walks up and down the room, watching each wrestler intently, only stopping to teach one of his kids proper technique and methodically explain what went right and wrong.
On one end of the room, fraternal twins Connor and Jared Prince square off. The freshmen are fundamentally sound and each struggles to gain an upper hand.
On the other end, sophomore Aaron Hartman grapples with a teammate. His style is aggressive and he tends to toss his opponent all over the mat.
“I’m just trying to help (my teammates) get better by wrestling hard,” said Hartman, with a fierce look. “You can’t be nice on the wrestling mat.”
Connor (106), Jared (113) and Hartman (145) are each ranked No. 1 in the state for his weight class, according to Scout.com. Only state and national powerhouse Brandon — also a Class 3A competitor of the Hurricanes’ — has more top-ranked grapplers (five).
“It doesn’t really change anything (being ranked No. 1) because I take it one match at a time,” said Jared Prince, who defeated Brandon’s James Flint, the No. 2-ranked wrestler and a two-time defending state champ, during Durant’s Cougar Invitational in December.
“(Flint’s) still going to be one of the best kids I’m going to wrestle, so I don’t want to take him for granted.”
His brother was a bit perplexed by his ranking, but hasn’t allowed it to deter him from the ultimate goal.
“I was surprised to see that I was ranked ahead of (Brandon’s Dylan) Lucas,” Connor Prince said. “He has been No. 1, he won states and he’s beaten me. I’ve never beaten him before.
“I don’t think, ‘Ugh, he’s too good,’ and just lay on my back. I definitely think I can beat him.”
Both twins post an identical 36-1 record. Hartman is 30-0 and galvanized by last season’s events.
“I think about being last year’s runnerup every day at practice,” said Hartman, who lost to Brandon’s Rossi Bruno in 2011’s state finals. “That’s really my motivation. I have to win it.”
PHU is 16-0 and ranked No. 5 in the state, behind heavyweights like Brandon, Kissimmee Osceola, South Dade and Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
“I’m a little upset we’re ranked fifth in the state,” Sakevich said. “We went out to a tournament earlier in the year and beat up St. Thomas Aquinas pretty good, and they’re still ranked ahead of us.
“My first two years here, it was pretty fun to operate under the radar. It’s nice to get the notoriety, but the downside is you’re not going to sneak up on anybody.”
The Hurricanes’ quest to maintain their newfound contender status begins Feb. 4 in the district tournament at Alonso.
Photo: Palm Harbor University wrestlers Connor Prince, Aaron Hartman and Jared Prince.
Class 3A-7 at Alonso
Teams: Alonso, Chamberlain, Clearwater, Countryside, East Lake, Freedom, Gaither, Palm Harbor University, Seminole, Steinbrenner, Wharton
Schedule: Feb. 4. First match at 9:30 a.m., finals at 4
Class 3A-8 at Manatee
Teams: Naples Gulf Coast, Manatee, Northeast, North Port, Pinellas Park, Sarasota Riverview, Sarasota, St. Petersburg
Schedule: Feb. 4. First match at 11:30 a.m., finals TBD
Class 2A-8 at Dunedin
Teams: Dunedin, Mitchell, River Ridge, Sunlake, Tarpon Springs, Zephyrhills
Schedule: Feb. 4. First match at 10 a.m., finals at 4
Class 2A-10 at Osceola
Teams: Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Gibbs, Jefferson, Largo, Leto, Osceola
Schedule: Feb. 3. First match at 10 a.m., finals at 4
Class A-10 at Indian Rocks Christian
Teams: Admiral Farragut, Calvary Christian, Clearwater Central Catholic, Gulf, Indian Rocks, Lakewood, Northside Christian, Ridgewood, Shorecrest
Schedule: Feb. 3. First match at 2 p.m., finals TBD