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Strong mix powers Pasco

John Clarke didn't want to run the 2 miles Mark DeAugustino assigned his wrestlers Wednesday at Pasco's W.F. Edwards Stadium.

He wanted to run them his way.

"What do you mean your way? Elvis Presley?" DeAugustino said, before breaking into song. "I want to do it myyy waaay."

"It's the harder way," Clarke responded. "I run four laps, I do 50 pushups and 50 situps, then I run four laps and do 50 pushups and 50 situps."

Clarke's iron will and DeAugustino's playful banter are among the reasons Pasco will take more wrestlers to the state Class A tournament, today through Saturday at the Lakeland Center, than any county school.

The Pirates' six qualifiers - seniors Clarke (171) and Mikey Cowell (103), juniors Javier Benitez (125) and Jacob Hinkle (130) and sophomores Ray Perez (189) and Eric Stroud (215) - are their most since they advanced seven in 2001.

"Every year, I've been pretty blessed, but I have not yet not enjoyed coaching these kids," DeAugustino said. "I enjoy coming to practice and hanging out with them and coaching them and watching them grow."

Each has grown in his own way.

Cowell (34-3) is tough on top, hard to hold down and very good on his feet. With his confidence and conditioning at an all-time high, he should be among the favorites at his weight, DeAugustino said.

Benitez (26-10) has great hips, quick feet and a growing understanding of how to use them. He never stops competing, as he showed by pushing through a rib injury last weekend to beat a Delray Beach Atlantic wrestler who knocked him out of the 2005 region tourney.

"When I hurt my ribs, I was down and I started to cry," Benitez said. "I was done. I felt real depressed, but I knew I had to make it. I went out there and I wrestled my match, and I won."

Virtually unstoppable in the top or bottom position or on his feet, Hinkle (27-8) can be one of the best wrestlers DeAugustino has ever worked with if he doesn't hold himself back mentally, the coach said.

Clarke (33-1) is tough on his feet because he stays in his stance for six minutes offensively and defensively. His only loss came against three-time national champion David Craig of Brandon. With interest from North Carolina and Iowa State, a 3.7 grade-point average and strong test scores, Clarke is a sure-fire Division I prospect.

"I've got a way better chance this year than I ever did," said Clarke, who came within an overtime loss of placing last season. "I've been training for this, I really have."

Drilling with Clarke every day for the past two seasons has helped Perez (26-8) and Stroud (33-8) - already fundamentally strong - develop speed and strength far exceeding their age.

Though Clarke and Cowell are three-time state qualifiers and Hinkle has advanced twice, all six Pasco wrestlers have the same goal: to place among the top six and make it to the medal podium.

"I don't lay, "You need to be a state champion' on them," DeAugustino said.

They do well enough pushing themselves.


WHEN: Today-Saturday

WHERE: The Lakeland Center

SCHEDULE: Today - Weigh-ins, 10 a.m.; first round, noon; first round of wrestlebacks, 5 p.m. Friday - Weigh-ins, 8 a.m.; second round, 10; second round of wrestlebacks, 2:30 p.m.; semifinals, 7. Saturday - Weigh-ins, 8 a.m.; third round of wrestlebacks, 10 a.m.; fourth round of wrestlebacks, noon; fifth and sixth place finals, 4 p.m.; third and fourth place finals, 4; championship finals, 6:30.

COUNTY QUALIFIERS (CLASS A): Gulf - Michael Centani (8-4), 103; Brandon Muetzel (24-19), 112; Mike Calafiore (32-4), 119. Hudson - Lance Barabas (36-6), 130; Travis Tindell (26-6), 275. Pasco - Mikey Cowell (34-3), 103; Javier Benitez (26-10), 125; Jacob Hinkle (27-8), 130; John Clarke (33-1), 171; Ray Perez (26-8), 189; Eric Stroud (33-8), 215. Zephyrhills - Westley Thornton (27-15), 140; Beau Barnes (27-10), 160; Justin Collura (32-9), 171.

COUNTY QUALIFIERS (AA): Land O'Lakes - Josh Kweller (35-10), 135; Evan Stack (40-4), 145. Ridgewood - Dean Stupar (35-9), 103; Allyn Williamson (20-8), 125.

PARKING: $5 per day

ADMISSION: $7 per session

DIRECTIONS: Take I-4 E to exit 31 (Kathleen Rd.). Go right on Kathleen Rd. and continue to Sikes Blvd. Bear right at the yield sign and turn right at the second traffic light (Lime St.). The Lakeland Center will be on your right.

- FRANK PASTOR, Times staff writer