A year ago, Scotti Sentes and his Riverdale teammates ran roughshod through the Class 1A bracket. A senior-laden team, the likelihood of them taking home another championship seems near-impossible. This year, the smallest division in Florida's 3-class system seems to be more wide-open than at any time in recent memory. The clear favorite is Clay High (Green Cove Springs) who may add a second State Championship trophy this decade. They return the 7 State Qualifiers, more than any other team. They also added transfer State Qualifier Jason Wojcik. They are led by perennial Bridesmain Garret Soileau and the athletically gifted Kyle Mills.
With 5 returning State Qualifiers, Panhandle Wakulla returns 5 state qualifiers, led by State Runnerup, and current sophomore Tre McCullough. Coach Frank Pettineo and Cardinal Gibbons return 4 State Qualifiers, but that is just the start. Expect them to bring at least 8 to Lakeland. State Runner-up Frank Pettineo leads the Chiefs on their quest to bring home another State Team Title. Suwannee's biggest loss comes from losing Hall of Fame Coach David Laxton. Returning 3 state qualifiers, Laxton's son Travis, and returning 3rd-placer is the headliner on a depleted Bulldog squad. A healthy middle school program does exist, however, so it will interesting to see who steps up.
Clay, while the favorite, has a semis jinx. A year ago, they had four state semi-finalists and none made it to the finals. If they can find a way to get 4 in the finals this year, however, they may run away with the title.
Who Will Finish Second in 2A and 3A?
It's a foregone conclusion that the races for the Team Titles in 2a and 3A are complete with Brandon and South Dade, respectively, returning too much firepower for any other team to compete. Brandon, in fact, will win a State Title for at least the next 4 years, as they continue to replenish themselves through the Brandon Wrestling Club, which annually produces kids' State and National Champions. In fact, Brandon's next great (Grajales, Gomez, Craig, etc) may in fact be the Lucas Brothers, who, I believe are about 4 years away from competing for Brandon High School. Re-load the pistol Cozart!
Contenders for second place in 2A are Manatee, Springstead, and Palmetto Ridge. Manatee and their Head Coach Andy "Gug" Gugliemini have been doing the hard work these past years, establishing a strong and numerous kids wrestling club. A club that produced its first State Champion in Alex Doran. The Hurricanes only return 5 state qualifiers, but don't let that fool you. A senior-laden team a year ago, Manatee's kids club will fill in nicely.
As Rome was not built in a day, Springstead has been building. Much in the same way Coach Gug has made the kids club a priority, so too has Head Coach Eric Swensen. He will have two Fargo All-Americans on this year's squad, in brothers Nick and Dustin Soto. Incoming freshman Cody Ross is a former Kids' National Champion and should be a 4-time state placer. Palmetto Ridge also has a large kids club and it will be interesting to see who replaces former State Champs Zack Mastro, Richie Dehnz and Elias Rey. State Champion Cody Singletary returns, and is pretty big from what I hear. Expect a Singletary-Bruno match in the finals.
In 3A the chase for second is led by Osceola, Oviedo, American and Columbus. Osceola is the clear favorite for the Second-Place trophy. Consider, besides, the aforementioned Bird, Eggers and Clemons, they return State Champ Pete Baldwin, State Placer Matt Jones, and State Qualifier Robert Strader. They also picked up two transfers in the Locksmith brothers, with the eldest, Joe, being a returning State Qualifier. Younger brother Timothy should qualify and at the least score some points in Lakeland.
American returns 4 State Qualifiers three of whom placed a year ago. The fourth, David Castillo was a potential placer but forfeited his first two matches after injuring himself at Regionals the week before. Former 4-time defending State Champs, Oviedo are also an enigma. The potential is there, with 5 returning State Qualifiers, including State Placer Davin Morris. The Lions also add transfers Joey Hefley and Jay Taylor. Taylor will place high at 189. The all-boys school, Columbus, coached by Hall-of-Famer Jim Husk return 5 state qualifiers, with Placers Jake Rio and George Gulesian.
In the battle for 2nd, expect Manatee (2A) and Osceola (3A) to take those trophies.
Bridesmaid to Bride?
Four seniors alway seem to be one step away from the podium, and this is their last year to taste and savor a State Championship. Jacob Harmer, Wilson Mettelus, Jacob Gregory and Soileau all seem to find the top spot at Lakeland to be their unicorn. Harmer is two-time 3rd placer, each time losing to eventual State Champion Vince Maul. Mettelus is a two-time Runner-up first as a sophomore at Monsignor Pace, losing to Michael Calafiore; and last year at South Dade, losing to the talented Michael Nates of Hialeah. Gregory is also a two-time runner up, losing as a sophomore to Florida King Eric Grajales, and as a junior to Wade Consul.
Soileau seemingly started the semi-final curse that currently plagues Clay High. As a rising freshman, it was assumed he would win 4 titles, and each year he came agonizingly close. He has lost in the state semis every single year he has competed. First, as a freshman, being pinned by Merrit Burrus of Suwannee after trying to roll through a cradle (a kid he had beaten the week prior by technical fall). As a sophomore he ran into current Michigan State Wrestler and 2x State Champion Colby Borchetta. His junior year, he was bested by Daphilo Success of Glade Central.
Harmer will march to a title with no problem, as I see no one in the state of Florida who can beat Harmer (and that includes 189). He was close to pinning all of his opponents a year ago, and I imagine will come close, if not achieve that feat this year. Mettelus may have a tougher road, although its not clear who may challenge him. Possible candidates include Osceola's Joe Locksmith, Winter Springs Matt Nereim, Columbus' George Gulesian, Countryside's Austin Figari, and Oviedo's Chase Gordon. While he may have more POTENTIAL challengers, I don't see anyone stopping Mettelus from winning his first State Title.
Gregory competes in class 2A with his Manatee brethren, and as such, will have to contend with either Bruno or Liberatore of Brandon. He has a tough road between either of those wrestlers. I'm not sure how much separation there is between the two, in terms of ability, but I would venture to say that Gregory's experience could deliver him that elusive State Title. Gregory should have a couple of chances to wrestle Bruno/Liberatore during the season, for sure at the District 16 Duals, and possibly at the Ippolito Tourney, if Manatee attends. The sentimental part of me wants to believe Gregory will ascend to the top of the throne, but he will have a battle from either of the two Brandon kids.
Last, we have my good friend Garret Soileau. I've watched him wrestle since the 8th grade, and you just knew he would be a multiple-time state champ. His father was a State Runner-up himself, and the genes passed on quite well. Each year, however Soileau just seems to either make a mistake or not wrestle at his best in the semis. His freshman year, it was a costly mistake, and his sophomore and junior seasons, he wrestled that guys, that I think, he beats 9 out of 10 times, if they wrestle. It just so happened that that one time was on the night it meant the most. Soileau has no true challenger at this point, and will probably wrestle 135. My heart says pick Soileau to catch his elusive State Title, and my head says he will.
Who is the best wrestler in 1A?
This throne was vacated by Central Michigan signee Scotti Sentes. The first name that comes to mind is Soileau and after that - Kevin Norstrem (Tampa Bay Christian), Travis Laxton, Frank Pettineo, and Tre McCollough seem the likeliest of candidates. Norstrem, of the Brandon Farm System will wrestle one year as an 8th grader at Tampa Bay Christian. The FILA Cadet National Champion will win state if he competes at 103, putting him in line to be a 5x State Champion. However if he wrestles at 112 he will have a rough time with Laxton. Tough, ornery and a great rider, this battle might be the match of the night in 1A. Pettineo and McCollough return as state finalists, with McCollough loss in the finals coming to Sentes. Just a freshman, after the graduation/moving ons of the other names, McCollough, with the possibility, of three state titles could be the best wrestler in Class 1A.
In the end, I believe Soileau will ascend to his rightful place as not only State Champ, but as the best wrestler in Class 1A. He is great pinner, and this being his swan song, expect a banner year as he leads his Clay High teammates on a quest for a Team State Title.