Hillsborough County's top five teams
The Eagles return four state champions — Rossi Bruno, Joey Cozart, Clark Glass and Mike Ettore — and add a fifth (Kevin Norstrem from Tampa Bay Christian). They move from Class 2A to 3A, but that should matter little. "We've got one of the best teams that I've ever had," Cozart said.
Coach Dennis Kitko, a former Brandon state champ, has a solid nucleus, including previous state qualifiers Alex Hamm, T.J. Davis and Titus Horner.
The Tigers, 14th at the Class A tournament, return state qualifiers Anthony Cimino (130 pounds) and Mike Lamoureux (215).
Coach John Moore likes his nucleus, led by two-time state qualifier Tony Milanes, 2009 district champ Mike Schepman and returning district runnerup Joe Piazza. All should wrestle at 130 or lower.
The Knights graduated five state qualifiers from a team that earned a top-20 finish at last year's A tournament, but return two (215-pounder D.J. Woods and 160-pounder Chris Padilla) who did make it to Lakeland.
Returning state champions
(listed with weight and classification at which they won)
Rossi Bruno So. Brandon (2A, 119)
Joey Cozart Sr. Brandon (2A, 145)
Mike Ettore Sr. Brandon (2A, 189)
Clark Glass So. Brandon (A, 130)*
Kevin Norstrem Fr. Brandon (A, 112)*
*won title while attending Tampa Bay Christian
Returning state qualifiers
(listed with weight at which they qualified)
Anthony Cimino Jr. Jesuit (130)
Sammy Conner Sr. Bloomingdale (103)
T.J. Davis Sr. Durant (145)
Chandler Dobler Sr. Newsome (135)
Jake Drake Sr. Newsome (140)
Wally Figaro Jr. Brandon (152)
Victor Fugate Fr. Brandon (103)
Titus Horner Sr. Durant (171)
Wes Jarrell Sr. Tampa Prep (160)
Kyle Koziel So. Brandon (160)
Mike Lamoureux Sr. Jesuit (215)
Keith LeFevre Jr. Brandon (103)
Tyler Liberatore So. Brandon (125)
Tony Milanes Sr. Alonso (119)
Chris Padilla Jr. Robinson (160)
D.J. Woods Sr. Robinson (215)
Based on the sparkle in Russ Cozart's green eyes and zestful tone in his voice, one might think Brandon's venerable wrestling coach is bent on building another 459-match win streak. Entering his 30th season as coach of arguably the nation's best prep wrestling program, Cozart shows exactly zero signs of slowing down. Though eligible, he's not even in the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, a financial boon to teachers with at least 30 years on the job. "You get in it and once you do your five years, you're done," he said. "They say, 'Hey, we've given you all this money, you're done.' " Entering his milestone season, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Eagles program, we spoke with Cozart about his 2009-10 team, how the end of the Eagles' nationally heralded win streak affected him and his three encounters with (of all people) Bear Bryant:
Every team takes on a personality of its own. From what you've seen so far, what could be distinctive about this team?
"These guys seem to me like they're on a mission. Joey (Cozart, Russ' youngest son) is back and he's got the experience of last year, he's got the experience of losing the streak in '08. He's got the experience of '09, him and Eric (Grajales) …so I've got good leadership on this team. I've got good young wrestlers and we're ready to go. We're definitely on a mission, we always set the bar high."
Did losing the Streak in 2008 take any of the wind out of your sails?
"No, no, no. Now, I can do different things with our schedule. I'm not so worried about protecting the streak, but keeping it legit. If anybody wanted us to wrestle in a big dual (meet) it had to be at Brandon. …And when we did get beat it was a little bit devastating. It was like an undefeated boxer getting beat for the first time, and then you've got to come back. But it was great, it was a great coaching experience. Joe's been through it. And a couple of these kids on this team have been through it. It just proves to us, 'Hey, we aren't invincible, we do have to work hard. We do have to try and get better.' It's made us all into, I think, better people because it's like, 'Hey, are we in this sport for everything or are we just messing around. Are we just here for the good times?' "
Have you thought of how much longer you want to coach?
My first year of coaching was '76-77, and this is my 30th here. It's hard to believe that I've done it for that long, but I feel great. I enjoy it. I've got great kids, they've come up through my youth program. I've known a lot of these kids since they were 7 or 8 years old. …I still want to help kids and coach them and I've seen a lot of things. I kept the streak going for 28 years. I want to stick around. I'd like to coach for a long time."
So how was it you met Bear Bryant (Cozart wrestled on scholarship at the University of Alabama in the early 1970s)?
"He was the last coach/athletic director, so all the freshman athletes got to meet him. All the freshman wrestlers on scholarship, the coach took us up to his office. Me, I was a really humble little guy and I was just always amazed at how they took care of us because we were just the wrestling team and the football team was everything. …And then I had to go to summer school one year and it wasn't on my scholarship, and my coach said you've got to see Coach Bryant about your summer school because it's not on your scholarship. So I had a meeting with him. He said, 'Ah, I remember you. Why are you going to summer school?' I said, 'I just want to graduate.' …Then he asked me, 'Hey, you looking for a job or anything? You got a summer job?' And I go, 'No, but I was looking for something.' I called up there and talked to his secretary. I got a great job back in the '70s for $5 an hour — in the '70s — teaching underprivileged kids how to swim. …And then one time I was out running for wrestling, cutting weight, and I almost ran him over in the parking lot one day. He was coming out of the office going to his car and I was coming around the corner. Those were my three (encounters)."