Heading into the state wrestling championships in Lakeland last weekend, Springstead High School was well aware that it had its hands full.
The Eagles were the two-time defending Class 2A champions, but the coaching staff knew the path to a third consecutive title would be difficult.
All three of last year's individual state champions had graduated. A lot of things would have to break just right for the Eagles to bring home another championship trophy.
In the end, they did.
After the first day of the two-day tournament, Springstead held a modest lead in the team standings. But with some disappointing losses, the Eagles had their work cut out for them on Saturday.
By the end of the semifinals Saturday morning, the Eagles had fallen behind both Olympic Heights and Lake Gibson high schools. Many of the Springstead fans on hand, and the coaches as well, weren't sure if the lead could be overcome.
However, resilient efforts by Springstead competitors who fell into the consolation bracket put the team in a position where it managed a tie with Olympic Heights at 93 points.
Sophomores Matt Landgraff (106 pounds), Mike McDonald (113) and Conor Ross (170) had their sights set on individual state titles, but difficult defeats didn't derail the trio's confidence, and each bounced back to reach the medal stand. Landgraff and McDonald each finished fifth; Ross took third.
The big surprise came from sophomore Billy Swift (160). Prior to the region tournament, coaches weren't sure whether Swift would even qualify for state. But once he gained momentum and confidence, he not only made the field, but worked his way to victories over some of the top-ranked wrestlers in the state. He finished in fourth place.
"In my mind, Billy was the wrestler of the tournament for us," Springstead assistant Charley Combs said. "He spent a lot of this season waiting for things to click, and even though we weren't sure if they would in time, he had a great weekend (in Lakeland)."
While the flicker of hope was brighter, coaches still figured the Eagles weren't likely to walk away with the title. Olympic Heights and Lake Gibson each had two wrestlers in the championship round. Springstead's lone representative was junior Jordan Rivera in the 138-pound final.
Not only did Springstead need Rivera to win convincingly; the team would need some help in the form of losses by the other leaders' finalists.
On the biggest stage, Rivera, who had placed two times previously at the state meet, delivered, winning a 12-3 major decision over Melbourne's Josh Miuccio.
"For two years, I've wanted Jordan to step up and be a leader," Springstead coach Sal Basile said. "(Saturday) he did that, and I'm very proud of him."
Tearing up after the victory, Rivera, who began competing on the mat as a 4-year-old in the Spring Hill Wrestling Club, had seen his dream come to fruition.
"Pressure can either break you into pieces or forge a diamond," Rivera said. "They put pressure on me, and I made diamonds. I couldn't have asked for it to turn out any better than it did."
Fans, coaches, teammates and school administrators all looked on with anticipation, knowing that the team's fate was now out of its hands. Both Olympic Heights and Lake Gibson had multiple opportunities to pass the Eagles.
One by one, those chances dried up with close losses. The final chance came when Olympic Heights' Ronaldo Abreu met Shane Carpenter of Creekside. The two battled back and forth, but as time ran down in the third period, Carpenter held a 4-3 lead, and no one was cheering louder than the Springstead section at the Lakeland Center.
Springstead — champs once more.
"To win one state title is tough, and every time you do it, it seems to get tougher," said Basile. "It's tough when you have to put the pressure on one guy."
Even after a season under scrutiny as the Eagles' first-year coach, Basile said he didn't feel the need to live up to the championship legacy begun by former coach Eric Swensen.
"It's definitely different with him not being here because he was a great friend," Basile said. "I take the head coach thing in stride, and I am with these kids on a daily basis, just trying to do my job."
Basile, a 1993 Springstead graduate and former placer in the state wrestling meet, was the program's top assistant coach for eight years. When Swensen resigned and moved last summer, Basile was tabbed to maintain the winning culture that had been built.
One of his first moves was to reach out to former Hernando High state placer Charley Combs to be a top assistant. Combs, the son of Hall of Fame coach Billy Combs, was willing and anxious to take the position. His father also has maintained a strong role with the Eagles after 34 years leading the Leopards program.
It was a gratifying run for the Combs family. At Hernando, Billy Combs' top finish as a coach had been in 2003, when his team finished second.
Founded by Bob Levija, who is still Springstead's athletic director, the Eagles' program flourished under his guidance in the 1980s and '90s, placing as high as third at the state tournament, something Levija's teams did in 1991, 1997, 1998 and 2001.
But it wasn't until Swensen and Basile pushed offseason training and youth wrestling that the Eagles stepped up as state favorites.
The program's recent success — three straight hard-fought titles — ties South Dade, Brandon and Flagler Palm Coast for the third-longest streak in the event's history.
The 31/2-point difference between Springstead (98) and Lake Gibson (94.5) on Saturday was also the closest finish since Charlotte and South Dade tied for the state title in 1997.
All five wrestlers who reached the podium for Springstead will return next season, and seven of the nine state qualifiers are in line to return, with the hope of winning a fourth consecutive title.