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Lone loss last year fuels Eagle

By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 11, 2002

SPRING HILL -- For his Springstead teammates, the Dr. Batista Invitational signals the start of a push toward next month's district tournament and, hopefully, state. But for senior Matt Booker, it means something else: a return to the site of his only loss last season.

Booker, last year's Class A state champion at 135 pounds, dropped a 10-3 decision to Land O'Lakes' Derek Schiffer in last season's Batista final.

"He shut me down," Booker said. "He rode legs on me the whole time. I couldn't do anything."

Schiffer graduated, denying Booker the chance to avenge the lone blemish on a 48-1 record.

But Booker, who was 21-0 entering Wednesday's match against Central, will be a heavy favorite at 145 when the two-day, 18-team tournament begins today at Springstead.

"This one, I want to win because I didn't win it last year or any other year," Booker said.

"Last year, I lost my only match in the finals, and I really want to get out there and win my school tournament," he said.

Booker finished a victory short last season, but four of his teammates captured titles.

Steve Garofano (152), 19-0 entering the Central match, won the 171-pound championship. The Eagles' other titlists -- Gerard DeCristofaro (140), Jason Faucher (119) and Reggie Pena (152) -- graduated. Class 3A three-time defending champ South Dade will make its first appearance in the tourney, which is in its 10th year and second as the Batista Invitational. Central and Seminole also are new entrants.

Plant, Chamberlain, Tampa Bay Tech and Jesuit withdrew because the West Coast Conference Tournament coincided with the invitational.

"It's been up and down," Springstead coach Bob Levija said. "Some years are strong, some years are not so strong. This is kind of in the middle."

The Eagles won the past five tournaments, but South Dade is favored this time. River Ridge, Gulf, Central and Crystal River are expected to be in the mix.

South Dade heavyweight Daniel Perez recently defeated Edinboro University's Joe Hennis, a three-time state champion at Titusville Astronaut, in the college division of the Sunshine Open.

Central's Bucky Solomon (112), who placed fourth in the state a year ago at 103, and Crystal River's Josh Stone (160), among three Pirates who took third in the Kiwanis Tournament last month at Hernando, are among the other wrestlers to watch.

Springstead is coming off strong showings in the Kiwanis tourney and the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference Tournament on Dec. 21 at Lecanto.

Booker, Garofano and Booker's younger brother, Nate (171), each won Kiwanis titles. Steve Bartke finished a surprising third at 140. Tommy Walker upset Central's Solomon at 112.

Levija hopes to build on that momentum this weekend.

"We want to try to get as many kids placing as we can, try to get some good wrestling in," he said.

"Now it means something with the new season starting this week," Levija said. "Now everything pushes toward districts and states for the big show."

-- Staff writer Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to pastor@sptimes.com.

BATISTA INVITATIONAL

WHEN: Today and Saturday.

WHERE: Springstead High School.

TIMES: Competition starts at 1:30 p.m. today and resumes with semifinal action 10 a.m. Saturday. Championship matches are expected to begin about 6:30 p.m. TEAMS: Berkeley Prep, Central, Crystal River, Dunnellon, Gulf, Hernando, Hudson, Land O'Lakes, Lecanto, Mitchell, Pasco, Ridgewood, River Ridge, Seminole, South Dade, Springstead, Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills.

ADMISSION: $5.

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