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State likely Bertine's swan song

Joe Bertine remembers his introduction to high school wrestling.

It happened at a weigh-in his freshman year.

"What do you mean get naked?" he recalled saying, mimicking the high-pitched voice of a nervous ninth-grader. "I had to drop my drawers at Citrus."

At the time, the wrestling novice weighed 119 pounds and was just learning how to place moves on opponents.

Now, four years and 26 pounds later, Bertine is prepared to compete in his second straight state tournament. And as a four-year veteran, not even the pre-meet weigh-in Thursday morning will bother him.

Barring a late decision to wrestle in college, the state meet will mark Bertine's final appearance in his favorite sport.

After losing in the second round last year, Bertine hopes to place in the top six. He finished third at the region meet Saturday.

"I'm not worried about being a champion or anything because it's probably a long shot," he said.

To advance, Bertine knows he'll likely have to beat lanky, quick wrestlers who prefer to stay away from him. He prefers to face aggressive wrestlers so he can use his upper body muscles to pin them.

"He's a strong kid," said coach Craig Frederick, who arrived at Crystal River in 1988. "He's probably one of the strongest in his weight class. He can get off his back better than anyone we've ever had here."

Bertine was a good football player, too, but at 5-foot-8, he lacked the size of many opponents. Playing running back and safety, he always gave up a few inches.

But in wrestling all of his opponents are 145 pounds, and that keeps things more fair.

"It was a lot more intimidating to go against teams like South Sumter and all of them," Bertine said. "They've got like 6-3 freakin' 255-pound running backs and receivers. In wrestling, it's like you and him. Whoever has trained harder, whoever has worked harder, is going to win."

Bertine works hard in the training room, though he probably is better known for his light-hearted nature. He's a natural jokester.

His coach calls Bertine a "pretty good comedian."

"He's a clown," said senior Ayinde Mathews, recounting an instance not appropriate for a family newspaper. "He can make you laugh out of everything."

Bertine smiles often, his wide grin marred only by his chipped front left tooth. Though on first glance it looks like a wrestling or football injury, it happened in third grade when he fell of his bike.

Bertine wants it fixed, but his mother Carrie told him he won't go to a dentist until he stops wrestling.

"She's afraid it will get knocked off if he fixes it," Bertine said. "I just want it fixed."

The state finals are scheduled for Saturday, and soon after, Bertine likely will regain his full complement of teeth. And with wrestling just about over, he'll probably never again be asked to drop his pants for a weigh-in.

But for Bertine, it's all kind of sad.

"This is my No. 1 sport," he said.