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Springstead High wrestlers are best team you've never heard of

For the Springstead High wrestling team, this is what passes for an easy practice:

Ninety minutes of take-downs, reversals and riding time with no break other than an occasional sip from a water fountain.

Barked orders from assistant coach Sal Basile, such as: "More intensity to your wrestling! It's not asked! It's demanded!

Dozens of sprints back and forth across the former auto shop classroom (it still has the roll-up metal garage door to prove it), which has been converted into a cramped gym.

The sound — when all of this is over and head coach Eric Swensen switches off the heavy metal music that has been blaring from a boom box — is of a room full of kids desperately trying to catch their breath.

So you can see why Springstead's wrestling team, maybe the most consistently outstanding high school sports program in Hernando County, attracts only certain, rare athletes.

They run and lift weights year-round and fly to meets in places like Fargo, N.D. During the season, they usually spend three hours a day on the mat, and then squeeze in more running and lifting. It is so crazy-hard it's no wonder the walls are padded.

Okay, so why doesn't the team attract more spectators? It's a source of pride for current and past wrestlers and their families; why not the community?

I asked this question of athletic director Bob Levija, who founded the program in 1980 and over the next 23 seasons compiled a 318-30-1 record, won 17 district titles and coached seven individual state champions.

"I could never figure it out," he said.

I have a few possible explanations. But first some history.

Levija previously lived and coached in the wrestling strongholds of Illinois and Minnesota.

When he moved to Spring Hill, he found none of the youth wrestling clubs common in the Midwest, no middle school teams and, with a few exceptions such as the dominant Brandon High program, little quality competition.

Florida wrestling, he said, "was a joke."

Not surprisingly then, Springstead "had success right out of the chute," he said, winning six district championships in the 1980s. John Lane became the school's first individual state champ in 1991. Later that decade, Corey Hill, who went on to a professional career in mixed martial arts, won two straight and in 1997 led the team to a third-place finish at the state meet, which is tied for its highest ever.

As the school's program developed, so did the Spring Hill Wrestling Club, which Levija founded after his first season. It kept Springstead wrestlers competing and training throughout the year, and the club's youth program started to feed the school team.

One indication that Spring Hill has become a real wrestling town with a real wrestling tradition is that several of the school's current wrestlers are ranked nationally. Another sign is that some are "second-generation kids," Swensen said.

Nick Soto's' father, Chris, served as an assistant coach at Springstead. His cousins wrestled for the Eagles. Soto (135 pounds) always expected he would, too.

"I thought of it as a destiny," he said.

Soto, a junior, placed fourth at the state meet last year. Cody Ross (130) was runner-up, as a freshman, and junior Richie Bliss (103) became the school's 12th individual champion.

Along with other stars in heavier weight classes, including Shawn Landgraff (152) and heavyweight John Dreggors, the team has its best chance ever for a state championship this year. It also helps that prior to this season, Brandon moved up and out of Springstead's 2A size classification.

Swensen "is an outstanding coach and I truly believe he's going to take it to the next level," Levija said.

This potential march to victory will start with the district championships next weekend, followed by regionals and, in three weeks, the state championships.

When I asked my son, a Springstead freshman, what he thought of the team's chance to win, he said it was the first he'd heard of it.

He's a scientifically minded teenager who probably cares more about events in some different galaxies than in the hallways of his own school. Still, I suspect his indifference is not unusual, partly because I haven't noticed that Spring Hill as a whole is exactly buzzing about Springstead wrestling.

It isn't a compact town the way Brooksville is. It's not served by one high school, but three, so rallying around a single team doesn't come naturally. As Levija pointed out, even last year's Springstead boys basketball team, which finished the regular season undefeated and placed second at the state championships, didn't attract large crowds until the playoffs.

And that's basketball, a mainstream sport with a ball and leaping players to follow. As a former high school wrestler — a bad one — I know that two guys straining on a mat may never have the same broad appeal.

I also know that several of the serious-minded kids I saw working out Tuesday are more interested in the challenge of winning than in receiving our applause. Which means they deserve it all the more.

Springstead High wrestlers are best team you've never heard of 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 12:22pm]
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