Preseason top five
The two-time defending Class 2A state champions are coming off of a turmoil-filled offseason. Coach Eric Swensen, who led the team for eight seasons, resigned to spend more time with his family and moved back to Minnesota. The team was left to longtime assistant and Springstead alum Sal Basile. The change should be seamless with most of the wrestlers familiar with Basile's coaching style and mannerisms. While all three individual state champions (Cody Ross, Sean Redman and John Dreggors) from last year have graduated and freshman state finalist Josh Herrera moved away, there is still plenty of talent. Six of the 14 competitors on the team have experience wrestling at state, including three who placed on the podium.
Heading into only its third season, the Falcons have already won district and region titles. Coach Andy Medders returns much of the lineup from last season. Much like Springstead, Fivay has had to deal with graduation (two-time state finalist Mike Hahn) and an unexpected move (state placer Sean Speer). However, five state qualifiers return, including placer Troy Reed.
With Swensen's departure and Bill Combs' retirement at Hernando, Travis DeWalt is now the dean of coaches on the North Suncoast. His 12-year tenure as the head man continues to impress as the program reloads season after season. This season the team will feature four state qualifiers (Kenny Hayes and Anthony Agazarm) and two state placers (Forrest Swartsel and Spencer Baxter), who both have a legitimate chance to win a title. The deep lineup is continually being developed, so there's no telling which wrestler could become a force by season's end.
4. Nature Coast
No team made more of an impact as last season wound down than the Sharks, but so many of the wrestlers in that lineup were seniors. Coach Mike Lastra lost Cameron Tull, Mitch Lambert and Carlos Carrasquillo to graduation. All were somewhat unexpected state placers after meteoric postseason rises. If the coaching staff can work with their inexperienced lineup in a similar fashion this year, the Sharks could make waves again.
Coach Mark DeAugustino will have his most experienced and talented team in years with three state qualifiers returning and two other talented seniors also in the lineup that should also make a run at state. Niko DeAugustino, Skyler White and Zack Jordan should provide the experience and leadership after making it to state last year. Kevin Tipton, competing at 113 pounds, and John Brown, wrestling at 170, could be the next two to join them.
• Dec. 7-8, Kiwanis Invitational at Hernando
• Dec. 15, Springstead Duals
• Dec. 21-22, Gulf Holiday Duals
• Jan. 4-5, Springstead Invitational
• Jan. 11-12, Combs Duals at Nature Coast
• Jan. 19, Anclote Challenge Duals
• Jan. 26, Suncoast Athletic Conference Championships at Hudson
• Feb. 1, District tournaments
• Feb. 8-9, Region tournaments (A-2 at Tenoroc in Lakeland, A-3 at Berkeley Prep, 2A-2 at St. Cloud, 3A-2 at Osceola in Kissimmee)
• Feb. 15-16, state finals at the Lakeland Center
Wrestlers to watch
Dakota Arends, Sr., River Ridge, 106 pounds: The lightweight flew somewhat under the radar last season even though he went 38-5. He fell to Gulf's Anthony Agazarm at the Sunshine Athletic Conference tournament and ran into Nature Coast's Sean Nguyen at region and state, but he did capture a district title.
Spencer Baxter, Sr., Gulf, 170: Baxter has had an up-and-down high school career, but he capped his 50-4 junior year with a bronze medal at the state meet in Lakeland. With one last shot, he wants gold in a weight class that seems ripe for the picking.
Matt Landgraff, So., Springstead, 106: During his 33-12 freshman campaign, Landgraff, the younger brother of former state champion Shawn Landgraff, never could solve his rival from Nature Coast, Sean Nguyen. Even at state, where he placed fourth, he lost to Nguyen in the round before his consolation final.
Sean Nguyen, Sr., Nature Coast, 106: When last season began, Nguyen was coming off a summer full of training and competing in USA tournaments. The hard work paid off as the strong, lanky wrestler went 52-8 and ended up at the state meet in Lakeland. He was part of a North Suncoast-dominated podium, taking third.
Jordan Rivera, Jr., Springstead, 132: In Rivera's first two seasons, he earned two third-place medals at the state finals in Lakeland. He was disappointed in last year's 36-6 finish, which tells you just how much drive he has. If the Eagles are going to be state contenders again as a team, he will have to be a major leader.
Conor Ross, So., Springstead, 182: Coming off of a stellar football campaign, Ross will shift his focus to wrestling, where he's just as good, if not better. As a freshman, he went 35-9 and made the state finals, the first Eagles wrestler to make it that far since his brother Cody. Now he wants what Cody achieved three times: an individual state title.