LAKELAND — In 2008, Dillon Dennis was third at district, fourth at region and went 0-2 at the state wrestling tournament as a member of the Countryside Cougars. Despite the not-so-special season, Dennis decided last February he was going to turn everything around his senior year and go undefeated.
He did it — and he has a gold medal to prove it.
"That was my plan," said Dennis, who switched schools this fall and became a Northside Christian Mustang. "I busted my butt all season and got better. My season started the week after state. I started game-planning it."
He wrestled Greco-Freestyle during the summer and competed against many of the same Lakeland qualifiers.
"I got beat up by most of the guys in the finals right here," he said. "I wrestled most of them."
The work paid off. After posting a 34-10 record last year, Dennis wrapped up a 39-0 senior season Saturday at the Lakeland Center. He preserved his unbeaten campaign by ousting Marcial Rodriguez of Mater Academy 5-1 in the Class A, 140-pound championship. Dennis scored an early first-period takedown and led 2-1 going into the third period. In the final two minutes he added an escape and late takedown to win by four.
"The first takedown usually decides who wins and who loses," he said. "The game plan was to wrestle hard and wrestle smart."
Dennis stayed unbeaten despite the distractions of moving to a different school and hearing the negative reactions. But Dennis said it was "water on a duck's back" and didn't mean anything. He put it all behind him, and apparently his entire family did as well.
Dryden Dennis (103) went 2-3 at the tournament and earned a sixth-place medal, and Dalton Dennis (112) went 4-3 for a fourth-place medal. All three brothers earned the right to stand on the award podium.
"That was pretty cool," Dillon said, "but I would have liked to have had them on top with me."
Pinellas County had two wrestlers reach the individual championship finals. Joining Dillon was 171-pounder Antonio Talley of Dunedin.
Talley posted a 15-3 major decision over previously unbeaten Maxwell Watson of Bayside (25-1) in the semifinals, but he could not get by undefeated Jacob Harmer of Gainesville (56-0) in the championship. Harmer used a third-period escape to win 1-0.
"I'm not intimidated by any wrestler," Talley said. "I wrestle as hard as I can no matter who it is."
But ending a career as a state runner-up was tough to accept.
"I can't believe I lost," he said. "I tried for takedowns, but I just couldn't get one."
There were eight other medal-round matches featuring Pinellas County wrestlers, but only Justin Zeedyk of Dunedin (2A, 189, fifth place), Tyler Paar of Clearwater (2A, 275, fifth) and Spencer VanBuskirk of St. Petersburg Catholic (1A, 152, fifth) went out on a winning note.