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Leopard goes through hoops for sport

Windham Rotunda gets cut from basketball team before embarking on state wrestling career.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003


BROOKSVILLE -- Windham Rotunda tried to deny his DNA. Junior varsity basketball tryouts wielded the stern hand of reality.

"I used to play basketball, and I thought I was good," said Rotunda, laughing as he leaned forward in an old plastic chair in Hernando's wrestling room. "But I was out of shape after playing football, and I didn't make it.

"You know, not making that basketball team might have been the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.

After watching his hoop dreams fizzle and die a pathetic death, the thick-bodied freshman followed the chiding of some friends and tried out for the wrestling team.

Rotunda says he didn't avoid wrestling as a kid because of who he is or what would be expected of him, but he knew the comparisons would come.

It's not easy being a freshman wrestler when your father is Mike Rotunda, who wrestled and played football at Syracuse and performed in the World Wrestling Federation as IRS (Irwin R. Shyster).

"My friends were all, "You should try out for wrestling. You'll probably be good, your dad's a wrestler,' " Rotunda said.

"When I came in, I thought I was going to be the stuff ... and I wasn't. It was a totally different thing than I thought it would be."

But after a tough first season, Rotunda is getting along just fine as a sophomore, entering this weekend's Florida Finals at 35-12 and a conference and district champion in the heavyweight division.

"He's doing really well for only being in his second year of ever wrestling," Mike Rotunda said. "I always knew he had the physical tools for it."

For a young wrestler in a weight class usually filled with older competitors, acclimation and commitment are musts, Hernando coach Matt Smith said.

Windham Rotunda began displaying both in preparation for this season.

"Usually what happens is it takes a year," Smith said. "They have to realize what it takes to be a good wrestler, and Windham was that way."

Rotunda competed at 215 last season, but put on about 25 pounds with weight-training and moved up to to the heaviest division.

Football coach Bill Browning and Smith "pushed me really hard, and I started responding to it, basically," Rotunda said. "And my dad was always such a good athlete in everything that he put pressure on me, too."

Rotunda's freshman experience was on-the-job training for this season.

"There was a lot of great competition at 215 last year, and I learned a lot from watching guys like (Zephyrhills') Shane Hand," Rotunda said.

"Once I got in better shape, I learned how to move people around, and it's helped this year because I'm kind of smaller for a heavyweight," he said. "If I can move them around and get them tired, once you get a heavyweight on his back, it's usually over."

Rotunda's 44-year-old father, who used to own a Brooksville gourmet coffee shop specializing in Headbutt Espresso, is a frequent wrestling partner at Leopards practices.

"He's always willing to put in the time to help," Rotunda said.

Mike Rotunda said he never worried about the scrutiny that was sure to come from his son's choice of sports.

"If somebody is interested in doing something, you can't worry about that kind of stuff," he said. "Windham has a good worth ethic when he does a sport, so I knew it wouldn't be a problem."

Rotunda let his son decide his own athletic tastes, even keeping him from playing football until he reached seventh grade.

"I left the decision to him," Rotunda said. "I let him do what he wanted and figured he'd come around.

"I think coach Smith had the biggest influence on him wrestling because he was his line coach in football."

Windham Rotunda had no idea what to expect from his first state wrestling tournament, but it has been on his mind.

"We were on the bus coming back from (regionals) and I was asleep," he said, smiling. "All of a sudden I woke up saying, "I've never been there before, I can't answer that question.'

"I looked around and everyone was staring at me and laughing, wondering what I was talking about. I was dreaming about it all the way back."

Don't deny genetics.

-- Brant James can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1407. Send e-mail to brant@sptimes.com .

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