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It's time for some to state their case

Central's run might not be finished, but Bears coach Barry Gardner is taking nothing for granted.

After going 15-3 in dual meets, winning the Gulf Coast Conference championship, and eking out a 9.5-point victory over host Springstead for the Class 3A, District 4 high school wrestling title last weekend, Central appears to be a top contender to win this weekend's Region 3A-I tournament.

"It's hard to say we're favored when the returning state champion, Live Oak-Suwannee, is in the region and so is Ocala-Forest, who beat them to win their district," Gardner said. "And you can't rule out Springstead, because they qualified two more wrestlers than we did.

"If we can get five region champs, we've got a chance. And I think we've got a legitimate shot of having six or seven advance to the state championship tournament."

More than 200 wrestlers from four districts begin action in the region tournament about 2 p.m. today at Springstead. Wrestling resumes with a semifinal session at 10 a.m. Saturday, followed immediately by wrestlebacks. Consolations start at 6 p.m. Saturday, followed by championship matches.

Admission is $3 per session (one Friday, two Saturday).

The top four finishers in each of 14 weight classes advance to the 3A state tournament, scheduled Feb. 28-29 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Central, Springstead and Hernando finished 1-2-3 in the 3A-4 meet and won 33 of the district's 56 regional qualifying berths. Springstead led the way with 12, followed by Hernando (11) and Central (10).

But the Bears won the seven-team tourney with five individual winners, including four who have already won more than 20 matches this season: 140-pounder James Reyes (24-1), 130-pounder Roy Reyes (23-0-1), 112-pounder John Lovaglio (22-3) and 220-pounder Doug O'Hara (21-4). Darrell Hall (19-5) is Central's other district champion, winning at 152 pounds.

The district's other individual champions are three from Springstead (103-pounder Sal Basile, 160-pounder Roy McDowell and 189-pounder John Siddle), three from Hernando (119-pounder Jay Bailey, 125-pounder Chuck Deason and 135-pounder Brad Kuhl) and three from Pasco County.

"We feel we have about four or five that could go to state, but we don't know anything about these other districts," Springstead coach Bob Levija said. "It's the first time we've been in this region. But I do predict that our district will do very, very well.

"Right now, this is kind of the fun part. Our district pulls together and it brings out a kind of camaraderie from the kids. When we're not wrestling, we're going to root for the kids from our district to do well. I think there will be eight or nine state (qualifiers) from our district."

Citrus High, the lone Citrus County school in the district, had three championship finalists and finished fifth as a team.

Springstead was last year's 3A-Region II runner-up to Auburndale, but the 3A schools from Hernando and Citrus counties are now in a restructured region that includes teams from throughout North Florida, including the Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Gainesville and Ocala areas.

Twelve Hernando County wrestlers qualified for last year's state championships, and three are back as region qualifiers this year: James Reyes, Kuhl and 145-pound district runner-up Jesse Owens of Hernando.

One other, former Springstead wrestler Tom Dougherty, is a district champion now competing for Hudson. Dougherty beat Owens 9-7 for the 145 title.

Hernando County produced one state champion last year, Springstead's John Lane.

_ Correspondent Rick Gershman contributed to this report.