PLANT CITY — When it comes to high school wrestling in Hillsborough County, there's certainly no shame in being second best.
That's exactly where Durant High, 26-3 in dual meets, stands going into district competition this weekend.
"If you eliminate Brandon, we're by far the best team in the county," senior Alex Hamm said.
Although the Cougars already thought they had the No. 2 team in the county, they can now say so with certainty based on a second-place finish at last weekend's Hillsborough County Championships. The winner, of course, was perennial powerhouse and nationally-known Brandon High.
Just as Brandon won easily, claiming 13 of 14 individual titles at the meet, Durant distanced itself from the rest of the competition. The Cougars' 112-pound wrestler, sophomore Chase Haley, won his division, while Durant put together its best group effort in coach Dennis Kitko's eight years at the school.
"I'm not saying it's the best team we've ever had," Kitko said. "But as a team they wrestled better — up to their potential — than any team I've ever had."
It has been a season of turmoil for Durant. Kitko was dealt a two-week suspension early in the season after arguing with an official. And just last week, wrestle-offs still took place to decide several varsity spots.
Despite the adversity, Durant seems to be peaking at the right time. The Cougars have a lofty goal for today's Class 2A, District 9 tournament: to advance wrestlers in all 14 weight classes to the regional meet.
"All year long, it's been a grind to stay motivated," said Kitko, 34, a three-time state champion at Brandon (which competes in 3A). "It's been one of the longest, most stressful (seasons), but it looks like it might turn out to be one of the most successful seasons at the end."
Along with Durant's bid to win districts and regionals, Hamm, who is 37-4 at 125 pounds, has his sights on a state title. "He's just worked his butt off and became one of the best wrestlers at his weight class," his coach said. "He's right there and ready to make a run for everything."
Hamm was a state qualifier two years ago and has already beaten one of 2A's top wrestlers at his weight. He pinned Springstead High's Virgil Toms at the Cougar Invitational on Dec. 5.
"I think I'm on the road to finishing (my career) the way I want to," he said.
Haley, the lone non-Brandon winner at the county meet, likely would've been on junior varsity this year if not for an injury to Durant's starter at 112 pounds. Others have stepped up as well, Kitko said, rising from average to the level of the team's best.
Even wrestlers in the weights that took all season to distinguish a starter have flourished.
"They had to be competitive just to earn the spot," said Hamm, a team captain. "And once they got the spot they started blowing through competition."
Durant has won five of seven district championships, failing to claim the title last year. Of the schools it will face today, only Plant City (fourth) and East Bay (seventh) finished in the top 10 at the county meet. Neither was close to catching the Cougars.
Kevin Smetana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.