SPRING HILL — The top of the mountain is a nice place to be.
For years, Springstead High School has had one of the state's premier wrestling programs, a factory for some of the best grapplers in Hernando County. Without a state title to its credit, however, there was always something missing.
Last weekend, at the state wrestling championships in Lakeland, Springstead finally crossed that final goal off its list, becoming the first Hernando team to win a wrestling title and only the seventh program in county history to ever win an athletic championship.
Consider some of the best to come out of the wrestling room at Springstead.
Corey Hill, a two-time state champion for the Eagles, went on to star on the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit and still pursues a mixed martial arts career. Dustin Swanton, another two-time state title winner, took a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. His younger brother, Schuyler, also won two state crowns at Springstead and earned a full ride to Virginia Tech.
The team first began to gain notice in the early 1980s with coach Bob Levija, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame who previously had coached in a couple of Midwest wrestling hotbeds. His expertise soon forged a winning mentality.
It was an attitude that he maintained until he left his post in 2002. He is now the school's athletic director.
After a couple of disappointing years, Levija went looking for someone new to take over as coach and instill the same values he had championed. He tapped Eric Swensen in 2005.
"When I first took the program over, we won district," Swensen said. "It was really emotional for (Levija). He brought me and (assistant) Sal (Basile) over and kissed us on the heads. I always felt like that was when the team was really ours."
Swensen, a former Massachusetts collegiate wrestler and coach in South Dakota, knew that working all year was the key to success. His plan was to foster the family atmosphere created by Levija.
That plan included bringing back former wrestler Basile as his lead assistant. The work Basile does with technique is instrumental with every competitor on the squad.
"Sal is mandatory," Swensen said. "He studies college wrestling. He sleeps like three hours a night. He's the reason this program is at the next level."
Every year that growth continues with names like junior varsity coach Mike LaRocca, trainer Chris LaRocca, assistant James Tietema and others. Parents of the wrestlers are active with the team.
The staff also takes a lot of pride in the expansion of the Spring Hill Wrestling Club, an extracurricular program to help get kids involved early with the sport.
With those steps, the program has continued to improve. After almost seven years, most of the wrestlers have already been coached by Swensen and Basile by the time they enter Springstead.
Jordan Rivera, the freshman who placed third at 112 pounds last weekend, has been competing in the sport since he was 4 years old. His older brother, Matt Booker, won a state title under Levija in 2001. Rivera was the only freshman to place in Class 2A this year.
"I used to see my brothers wearing the Superman singlets (the old Springstead uniforms), and I wanted to follow in the tradition," Rivera said. "There's always some pressure involved with being on the team, but it's a good type of pressure."
The young men who wear Springstead colors say they feed on that pressure. Richie Bliss (103 pounds), Virgil Toms (130), Nick Soto (135), Cody Ross (140), and Shawn Landgraff (152) each became state champions last weekend, motivated by the program's tradition.
For Bliss, capturing a third consecutive gold pushed him past the two Swanton brothers and Hill in Springstead lore. Toms, Soto and Ross each snagged their second titles as the Eagles pushed past Lake Gibson High School in the final round in Lakeland.
The seniors are looking forward to college opportunities. Bliss hasn't confirmed his enrollment, but has been offered a spot on the wrestling team at Waldorf College in Iowa. Toms is planning a visit to the University of Buffalo in New York this weekend. Landgraff has picked up interest from Campbellsville University in Kentucky.
"I encourage the kids to try it, but leaving the state is tough," Swensen said. "Wrestling in college is tough. There just aren't enough (collegiate) programs around here, and we'd like to see them compete at the NCAA or NAIA level."
Now the focus at Springstead is all about following one state title with another. The Eagles have dynasty on their minds.
"It's definitely possible," Ross said. "We don't rebuild; we reload."
With five of the state qualifiers coming back next season — including Rivera, Ross, John Dreggors and Thomas Gupton — there is a strong foundation already in place.