NEW PORT RICHEY — Gulf was the darling of last year’s state series. They weren’t exactly Cinderella, but the Buccaneers came from virtually leftfield to win to the Class A state title.
Most thought they would be back. After all, Anthony Ayers and Ladarious Jackson, who won individual championships, were returning, along with every key cog in the lineup. There were some questions as to Travis DeWalt’s future as coach, but when he confirmed his return everything seemed ready for a repeat run.
However, no one foresaw this bumpy ride. Ayers, who moved from 119 pounds to 130 this season, went undefeated last season. He locked horns with Springstead’s Virgil Toms on more than one occasion, never being able to overtake his rival. Ayers is still the favorite to win another title.
Jackson, who moved up two weight classes from 152 to 171, lost only one match last year. This time around he vowed to go undefeated as a senior. He has made good on that promise, despite some close calls against Hernando’s Zach Pritz.
“With every match that goes by I get more and more motivated,” Jackson said. “It’s about being healthy and getting ready for state. I know no one can beat me when I am at my best.”
R.J. O’Connor was runnerup last season at 135 and bumped all the way up to 160 for this campaign. He had a grip on the competition for much of the schedule, but at regionals he struggled with an opponent he had manhandled all season. He won a 10-9 decision over Dunnellon’s Steven Delgado in the final after winning technical fall over the same wrestler at districts.
Heavyweight Jeff Kruse was the hero at the Lakeland Center last year when his third-place victory clinched the team title for the Buccaneers. Last weekend at the Class A, Region 2 tournament at Tenoroc, Kruse, who was ranked as the state’s top heavyweight, struggled to qualify for the state tournament this time around, placing fourth.
“When you are the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the state and you come in fourth (in the region), that should leave a bad taste in your mouth,” DeWalt said. “He shouldn’t be okay with that. I’m not okay with that.”
First-timers Anthony Agazarm (103) and Austin Hayes (152) will fill out the contingent making the trip with DeWalt. Just like last season, all the cards will have to fall just right if the Buccaneers are going to compete at the team level this weekend.