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Booker solid to end

The senior's poised approach on the mat will be remembered as much as his titles and 137 victories at Springstead.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

SPRING HILL -- It was easy to see how Matt Booker handled success.

It was right there on display every time he competed this season. His approach was calm, calculated, successful, unchanging.

Springstead coach Bob Levija knew about all that, and that he never had to do much counseling of the senior, who had won a state title at 135 the previous year.

When Booker entered the Florida Finals this February at 34-0 -- with conference, district and region crowns -- Levija had no reason to assume there would be any stopping him.

Then Booker was caught in a move in a first-round match and was pinned by his nemesis, Palm Bay's Jeff Cotto.

"I had a bad match," Booker said. "I was a little nervous, and I didn't go out and wrestle my match." For wrestling his match every other time, Booker is the Times Wrestler of the Year.

Booker had entered Class 2A of the Finals with a shot at becoming the third wrestler in Hernando County history to win consecutive championships. He would have joined Springstead's Corey Hill (1996-97) and Dustin Swanton (1998-99).

"If (Booker and Cotto) wrestle 10 times, Matt wins 10," Levija said. "It's hard when you have one bad moment in a whole season and it happens there."

Cotto finished second in the tournament.

A few weeks earlier, Booker considered the weight of his winning streak, and discussed the pressure that mounted as the season progressed.

He had been concerned about Cotto, whom he had beaten twice but respected.

The thought of losing "always gives you a little nerves or butterflies before a match, but you just go out and wrestle like it's practice or anything else," Booker said after capturing a district championship. ... "In the state finals, you can't lose."

In a sport so understatedly cerebral, so driven by the relationship between sacrifice and reward, Booker -- his dream of a second title dashed -- had the opportunity to surrender.

Instead, he showed Levija how he handled adversity.

"He felt really bad, but he knew he had to suck it up and come back and take third, and he did," Levija said. "He just wrecked everybody on the way."

Booker beat Gulf Coast's Paul McClain for just his second loss of the season, pinned Cape Coral's Greg Gulla in one minute, 40 seconds, and scored a 17-2 technical fall over Fort Pierce Central's Bobby Ledbetter to finish third. Ledbetter, like McClain and Booker, had entered the Finals undefeated.

"I just wanted to finish it up strong, prove that I maybe should have been up there," Booker said.

He was named among the "Elite" wrestlers after the tourney, adding another laurel to a season of acclaim.

In a career so filled with victories -- Booker's 137 is third all-time at Springstead -- a loss helped solidify Levija's view of the quiet athlete.

"He was so cool," Levija said. "Things did not faze him. He was just one of the best we ever had.

"We've had great athletes and great wrestlers here," the coach said, "but he was a great athlete who was a great wrestler."

-- Information from Times archives contributed to this report.

-- Staff writer Brant James can be reached at (800) 333-7505, Ext. 1407. Send e-mail to

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