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State crown within reach

Sophomore Cody Ross, who finished second at state last season, is one of several Eagles expected to contend again. And with Brandon in 3A now, a team title isn’t out of the question.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Sophomore Cody Ross, who finished second at state last season, is one of several Eagles expected to contend again. And with Brandon in 3A now, a team title isn’t out of the question.

The difference between Springstead and a nationally renowned program such as Brandon might be opportunity. It stems from the work of Brandon coach Russ Cozart, whom Springstead coach Eric Swensen said works harder than anyone. "He's been coaching at Brandon almost as long as I've been alive," Swensen said. "The town of Brandon knows wrestling. They don't have to ask him how the team's looking. The kid at the grocery store knows. Kids move specifically from around the country to Brandon specifically to be there. That stuff doesn't happen in Spring Hill."

Brandon had been an insurmountable hurdle for Springstead when it came to postseason success. Sure, Springstead has its share of individual state champions, but the team has never won an overall title.

So when news came of Brandon switching classifications in the Florida High School Athletic Association's latest district shakeup, Springstead immediately became a favorite for state.

"They set the bar, and that's what we shoot for," Swensen said of Brandon. "…Our wrestlers have beaten their wrestlers before. "We feel like it's fair for us to say that's our goal."

As Swensen sees it, three more teams have a shot at the Class 2A title: Oviedo, Riverdale and Lake Gibson. Springstead, at this point, has a two-year window.

"We won five district titles in a row," Swensen said. "We were region runnersup three or four times, always to Brandon. …Last year, we took third and scored the most points (of any Springstead team) at a state meet."

Springstead, which matched the program's top finish last season, has plenty to be excited about.

It begins at 103 pounds with junior Richie Bliss, a defending state champion. Bliss will stay at 103 and is a favorite to defend his title.

Eagles junior Nick Soto was fourth at state at 125 and will wrestle 130 this season. Sophomore Cody Ross bulked up to 135 after finishing second at 119 last season. Swensen said Ross bought into a training program former Springstead star Schuyler Swanton brought back from Virginia Tech.

"He hit the weights," Swensen said. "He's not typical, but Cody's not a typical sophomore. …No wrestler likes to cut weight. Cody absolutely hates it. He wants to be big. Is it a positive? Absolutely."

Other promising Eagles include state qualifiers Colton Zimmerman (145), Shawn Landgraff (152) and Kenny Cox (215), though Cox has a knee injury and his status is unknown.

Springstead also adds a few move-ins, including heavyweight John Dreggors, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore from Citrus County. Also look for junior Virgil Toms from Ocala. He finished third at state at 119 and will wrestle at 125 this season. And Casey Quinn (171) moved to Spring Hill from New Hampshire.

"Can we win it? Absolutely," Swensen said of state. "I've never said that to the team before because there was Brandon. We can win it this year and next year. That's what we're preaching to the kids. We're going to be disappointed if we don't."

Izzy Gould can be reached at igould@tampabay.com or (813) 421-3886. Times correspondent Derek J. LaRiviere contributed to this report.

13 more worth watching

Ladarious Jackson Gulf Jr. (152) Had 50 wins last season, state runnerup.

Anthony Ayers Gulf Jr. (119) Had 52 wins last season, two-time state qualifier.

R.J. O'Connor Gulf Jr. (112) Finished sixth in Class A.

Daniel Pritz Hernando Sr. (135) Two-time state placer.

Zach Pritz Hernando So. (140) State qualifier last season.

Nick Hynes Zephyrhills Sr. (119) Two-time state qualifier, 2008 state placer.

J.P. Gamez Pasco So. (112) 2008 state qualifier.

Landon Vannata River Ridge Sr. (152) Won two matches at state last year.

Donovan Berardi River Ridge Sr. (285) Sunshine Athletic Conference champion.

Scott Cronin Nature Coast Sr. (125) State qualifier in '09; one win from placing at state.

Trevor Drake Pasco Jr. (140) Region qualifier in 2009; state ranked.

Tyler Forand Nature Coast Jr. (103) Region qualifier in 2009; state ranked.

Leigh Andre Mitchell Sr. (285) Finished 20-8 and was a region qualifier.

For the fans

Regular season: Schools begin the regular season today. They can participate in 18 meets. Tournaments count as two meets. The regular season ends Jan. 30.

The playoffs: The top four in each weight class advance from districts and regionals. The district tournaments are Feb. 1-6. Regions are Feb. 12-13. The state tournament is Feb. 19-20 at the Lakeland Center.

Classifications: Schools are divided by enrollment into three classifications, ranging from the largest in Class 3A to the smallest in Class A.

State crown within reach 11/15/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 15, 2009 4:13pm]
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