Keep an eye on these county contenders

Published February 15, 2007

Schuyler Swanton, Springstead, 103 pounds

Last summer, Swanton became the first wrestler in the program's storied history to earn All-America honors. His success at the Junior and Cadet Nationals in Fargo, N.D., really gave him a reputation to live up to this season, and he has done a good job of doing just that. With a 39-2 record, Swanton's top competition for the crown this season should come from Brandon freshman Terry Dawson. He was the state runnerup in 2006 to Brandon's Eric Grajales, this year's state favorite at 112 pounds.

Skylar Huff, Springstead, 119 pounds

Huff (39-4) may be the Eagles' most improved wrestler. He and C.J. Cook (125) switched weight classes this season, and the biggest benefits have come to Huff. His mat skills have improved, and with the fact he is competing against smaller opponents than he did in 2006, he is showing how good he really can be. Because this is Huff's first trip to state, whether he can place is a real roll of the dice, but based on pure talent, he should make some waves.

C.J. Cook, Springstead, 125 pounds

Cook (38-7), along with Steve Bliss, has more experience at the state level than any of the other Springstead wrestlers. The junior has qualified for every state tournament since his freshman season. Feasibly, there is little chance of Cook placing in one of the state's toughest weight classes. His first-round match against Reco Simmons of Manatee should keep his hands full from the start.

Steve Bliss, Springstead, 130 pounds

What Bliss (37-7) does from here on is a bonus for the junior. After aiming most of the season to compete for the program at 112 pounds, he found out before districts he was not going to make weight for that class. Because there were no holes in the Eagles lineup, Bliss shifted all the way to 130 and was a long shot to advance. He shocked everyone except himself by qualifying for state for the third consecutive year.

Jesse Graham, Hernando, 140 pounds

One season after winning a match at state, Graham (41-5), a junior, is completely different on the mat. He has made more progress, according to Hernando coaches, than any other wrestler on the team. As the only region champion for the Leopards, he holds quite a torch heading into this weekend's tournament.

Keith Hansen, Springstead, 145 pounds

Hansen (32-7) has been nursing a knee injury through the latter part of the season, so his ability to qualify for state has been admirable. Before the injury, Hansen was considered one of the favorites in his weight class, but with the senior not at 100 percent, it is difficult to tell how far he will be able to go. Sean Joyce of Brandon, undefeated at 44-0, likely will take this class.

Brandyn Kuhn, Hernando, 160 pounds

For much of the season, Kuhn (37-4) has been the on-the-mat leader of a turbulent program. Now that the ship has been righted, the burden of being that leader might be lifted. Though he had a disappointing loss at the Class A region tournament before finishing third, he was ranked first in Class A for much of the season and is a favorite this weekend.

Mike Heagney, Springstead, 189 pounds

Coming off a season where he finished sixth at 189 as a junior, Heagney has only two losses (37-2). One of the losses came in a 3-2 decision to Class A favorite Lee Laxton of Suwannee and the other came in a controversial region finals loss to Clayton Simmons of Brandon. Simmons, Xavier Lamb of Tallahassee-Lincoln and Andrew Fulk of Manatee should be Heagney's only obstacles toward the state crown.

Nick Pauliot, Hernando, 189 pounds

An offseason transfer from out of state, Pauliot (40-12) has been one of the most consistent forces for the Leopards. Being at 189 has given him ample opportunities to face off with Heagney, honing his skills against one of the top wrestlers in the state. That experience could make this junior a force this weekend. Look for Pauliot to give guys like Laxton, William Bentley of Hudson and Tim Mikula of Sebring all they can handle.

Taylor Rotunda, Hernando, 215 pounds

Rotunda (36-7) has been preparing all season for this experience. On the local level, he may have had the biggest tests of any weight class. He fought battles with two region qualifiers in Springstead's Jerrod Reynolds and Nature Coast's Lee Lehman. He even was tested by Pasco's Eric Stroud before beating him at the region tournament. Stroud is just one of the major tests Rotunda will face if he is going to place here.

Fast Facts:

State tournament

When: Thursday-Saturday

Where: The Lakeland Center, Lakeland

Admission: $7 per session, $5 for parking.

Today: Weigh-ins, 10 a.m.; first round, noon; wrestlebacks, 5 p.m.

Friday: Weigh-ins, 8 a.m.; second round, 10 a.m.; wrestlebacks, 2 p.m.; semifinals, 7 p.m.

Saturday: Weigh-ins, 8 a.m.; wrestlebacks, 10 a.m.; consolation finals, 4 p.m.; championship finals, 6:15 p.m.

Top contenders: Class A - Palmetto Ridge, Riverdale, Clay, Suwannee, Cardinal Gibbons.

Class 2A - Brandon. Class 3A - Homestead South Dade, Oviedo.

Outlook: Class A, the same classification that includes Hernando, Citrus and Crystal River, is the most wide open of the three team competitions to be decided this weekend. Class 2A and 3A are relatively sewn up with Brandon expected to walk away with an 18th state title and Oviedo looking to capture its fourth consecutive crown by denying South Dade its eighth title overall.

Springstead placed sixth in Class 2A last season, but the Eagles are a different program in 2007. While the team had more depth in its last campaign, Springstead has two legitimate state title contenders. Both could become Springstead's first state title winners since Gerard DeCristofaro (140 pounds) and Matt Booker (135) in 2001.

Hernando is the only other county school to advance grapplers to this weekend's tournament, but the Leopards are true contenders for placing all of their qualifiers. Though the program does not have the two dynamic forces it had last season in David Pritz (189) and Michael Combs (160), the team's complements are more experienced and ready to place.