CLEARWATER — Thirty-four Pinellas County wrestlers will be shooting for a state championship this weekend in Lakeland, but only one knows how it actually feels to win.
"I enjoyed it to the fullest," said Countryside senior Kyle Grueninger, who went 50-2 last season and won the Class 3A, 112-pound championship.
Now while others are hoping to get a taste of victory, Grueninger is out to prove he is still the best.
"Winning is hard, but if you repeat you really know you're the top dog," he said. "The pressure started the day after (the tournament). I was on top and people were coming for me. I liked it. It's more pressure, but pressure makes you work harder. I can't let people down. I have to repeat."
But Grueninger is a much different wrestler than last year. In June he sustained an injury that prevented him from working out in the offseason. He was unable to lift weights and his training took a backseat to healing.
"Last year I was go, go, go, go, but then after the setback I couldn't do that anymore," he said. "I had to change my style and my game and everything."
"After that injury, things were different," coach Mark Prince said. "He started the season not worried about being good, but how to get back to being good. For him, he's trying to prove he can do it again from scratch."
Grueninger was 35-0 during the regular season and 36-0 heading into the District 6 119-pound championship match against Sarasota's Robert Herrera. That's when Grueninger lost his first match of the season.
"Kyle was up by four points going into the third period and I think he took his foot off the gas pedal," Prince said. "He wrestled two-thirds of a match. Herrera wrestled the full match and that's why he won."
Grueninger knew he had made a mistake. After the match he sat on a rolled-up mat on the side of the gym for several minutes. No one went near him.
"I knew I stopped wrestling," he said. "When you stop wrestling, you leave chances for yourself to get beaten. I flat-out stopped and he put me on my back."
The district championship match was two weeks ago, but it may prove huge in Lakeland. There is a good chance Grueninger and Herrera will meet again. Grueninger and Herrera were supposed to meet a second time in a region final this past weekend, but Grueninger opted to default — partly to rest his injury and partly to prevent the Sarasota senior from getting another look.
"I've been thinking all week in practice, 'Don't stop wrestling,' " he said. "I should still be undefeated. My goal was to go a whole season undefeated and repeat. Last year I had a mind-set just to beat (Eric) Chandler no matter what. This year it's whoever gets in my way. Second is no option."
Countryside is sending four to state, which wraps up Saturday night.