Saturday, January 20, 2018

Brandon Eagles stand 'toe-to-toe' with best wrestlers

BRANDON — Even if you don't know the difference between a singlet and a Snuggie, chances are you know about "The Streak."

Yes, that streak — the string of victories that Brandon High's wrestling team carried on throughout three decades and countless athletes. The Eagles won 459 consecutive dual meets spanning more than three decades and countless athletes. The second-longest team streak in American sports is a tennis team from Colorado that won 312 straight dual meets.

Then in 2008 it ended, as everything always does.

"It was something that so many kids who have come through this program can be proud of," Brandon coach Russ Cozart said of the winning. "We built a tradition here and did something that had never been done anywhere."

Since that loss in 2008, however, the Eagles have lost four times in dual meets, including three in one day over the winter break at the Clash tournament in Minnesota. The winner of the 32-team field is widely considered the national champion.

"We stood toe to toe with the best teams in the nation," Cozart said. "And my guys lined right up with them and didn't back down."

Rossi Bruno, a 126-pounder who is a four-time state champion (he won a title as an eighth grader at Tampa Bay Christian), was one of three Eagles to take home All Tournament honors. Bruno, a senior headed to wrestle at Michigan next year, said competing against the country's best was a memorable experience.

"We got a chance to see where we stack up," he said. "Every team, even the best in the country, loses, so it's not that big of a deal. The streak ended a few years back and we're a new team now."

Although it was against elite competition, the thought of Brandon losing one dual meet — let alone three in one day — was shocking to say the least.

"We came up a little short," Cozart said.

However, the Eagles didn't fall to some slouches. Brandon, which entered the tourney ranked sixth in the nation, lost each of those meets to a team ranked higher in the country. But with the streak in the rearview mirror, Cozart said all teams, regardless of location or resume, are now on Brandon's radar.

"Now that the streak is over," he said. "We want to take on any team in the USA."

Whispers followed Cozart around for years when Brandon was in the midst of its mind-boggling stretch that began in 1974. Critics would say Brandon ducked certain opponents to preserve their record.

"During it, people would want us to come to their tournaments 2,000 miles away and travel to their gyms because they knew we were a big draw," Cozart said. "And one thing I always said was we would never lose that streak on the road. If someone was going to beat us, it was going to be at our gym in front of our fans."

Cozart's philosophy was simple: Those who wanted to take the proverbial title had to come and to Victoria Street to get it.

"We would invite teams from all over the country to come to our gym and few took us up on it," he said. "And we beat, by and large, every team in the state of Florida."

Now that the streak is over, Cozart said he will consistently travel around the country to face the toughest teams.

"It's opened things up for us and given us a chance to put our guys against the best of the best," he said. "People talk about losing the streak, but I think it was a blessing in disguise because this is what is going to take our program to another level."

And that exposure nationally, Cozart hopes, should benefit his wrestlers come state tournament time.

"They're getting exposure to college teams because most of them won't travel to Florida to see us," he said. "We lost some meets up there but our guys didn't back down one bit and it was a very positive experience that will pay off for us."

Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]

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