Thursday, April 19, 2018
Sports

Durant wrestling welcomes challenge at Cougar Invitational

The idea of an early-season tournament, whatever the sport, is to set it so the home team has the best chance to win.

Well, the Cougar Invitational has let that notion go by the wayside. And it's not because Durant has lost its strength as a wrestling program.

South Dade and Kissimmee Osceola, the teams that finished second and third behind perennial power Brandon in last year's 3A state meet, are both in town for the tournament.

So are the 2A state tourney's top three teams — Springstead, Lake Gibson and Riverdale (Fort Myers). Toss in the 1A team titleholder Lake Highland Prep from Orlando.

Oh yeah, the squads that finished 1-2 in Georgia's largest classification (Collins Hill and Camden County) also will be on board.

"We decided about 10 years ago to really ramp it up," Durant coach Drake Millard said. "We just looked at the top five schools from the past year's tournament and started soliciting those types.

"Some host schools are very selective in who they bring in so they can at least place, or win. We take the approach that our guys will rise to the competition."

The Cougars will have to rise to the competition without competing in its home gymnasium.

Now in its 17th year, the tournament is today and Saturday at the Strawberry Festival Grounds' Madonia Center, with room for eight mats and a crowd of 1,200.

Starting out as an eight-team event, the field has steadily been expanded to include some of the state's super-elite and then branched into Georgia. There are four teams from Georgia this year.

In fact, fewer than half of the 28 schools are from the immediate bay area with just eight from Hillsborough County. Strawberry Crest, which has a promising young group, will join Durant, Hillsborough, King, Freedom, Robinson, Steinbrenner and Tampa Prep. Brandon, which won the last two invitationals, does not compete this year but the fact that they were invited in 2010 and 2011 reflects Durant's willingness to take on all challengers.

Darrien Kelly is Durant's top returning performer from last year's state meet, where as a junior he overcame a first-round loss to finish fourth.

He's wrestling at 132 pounds, up from 120. Levi Williams is another with high hopes among a group of seniors that includes Evan Booher, Matthew Millard and Keith Watford.

Twins Reagan and Austin Haley, both juniors are forces at the lighter weights.

"I think we'll be real competitive," Millard said of the Cougars' prospects in the invitational. "We might surprise some people this year."

Millard takes over from coach Dennis Kitko, who took a position with the School District, leaving the Cougars' wrestling post after 13 seasons. But Millard was Durant's head coach for the first years and he's also been coaching with the Thundercats Wrestling club affiliated with the school.

   
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