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Healthy Gators hunger for elusive state championship

Led by the return of Derek Schiffer, Land O'Lakes wants to win the championship it was ready for last season.

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2001


LAND O'LAKES -- They were the highest of hopes.

Last season, Land O'Lakes was deep, talented and primed for a run at the state title. Potential state champions littered the roster. Expectations were great, even as coach Ed Goodpaster tried to downplay just how good he knew his Gators could be.

It took just one injury to wipe it all away.

It was the day before the regional tournament. The drill is called "bulldog," and the object is to run from one end of the wrestling room to the other without a heavyweight taking you down.

Derek Schiffer was the first to take off, but he was quickly cornered by Adam Nuru. The Gators' heavyweight, who won a state championship last season, tangled with Schiffer. And then Schiffer felt something give in his right wrist.

The doctor confirmed it was broken. Suddenly, Land O'Lakes' hopes for a state title were a distant memory.

"When the doctor told me," Schiffer said, "I wasn't going to let him put the cast on."

Schiffer is back this season, and again Pasco County's most dominant 135-pounder. With the misfortunes of last season behind him, the senior is ready for a run at the state title that has eluded the four-year letterman.

"He's one of the best contenders for a state title that I've got," Goodpaster said.

It all starts at Saturday's Class 2A, District 9 tournament.

Without him, Land O'Lakes has no chance. With him, the Gators can take their shot.

"I thought we were a contender last year," Goodpaster said. "I thought we'd be up there and do really well, maybe first or second. But that injury, more than anything, really took us out of state. All you can do is hope it doesn't happen again."

Indeed, because Schiffer has picked up where he left off. This season he has compiled a 44-2 record and won his second Sunshine Athletic Conference title. With every victory, Schiffer extends his school record of 137.

Heavyweight Jason Carpenter and 189-pounder Jimmy Tuttle are right behind with 127.

By comparison, Nuru graduated with 109 career victories, the previous school record.

Schiffer is just one of Land O'Lakes' brightest hopes to compete at state, but he is not the only Gator who suffered a setback last season. An injury also kept Carpenter out of states last year, and Tuttle was on his way to the final before a last-second knee injury left him unable to compete. Injury also cut Ron Crotty's season short at 140.

They're all back, and Paul Yarbrough at 130 and Chris Bowen at 152 make the squad even more potent.

"We have six wrestlers who can help us win the state title," Goodpaster said.

As much as Schiffer would like that too, he has his own goal this season.

"To win a state title, definitely," he said.

Yet after his injury, he didn't even want to be with his teammates at the regional and state tournaments. He eventually went, but reluctantly.

"I wasn't going to go," Schiffer said. "My dad said if you don't go, it's going to look like you didn't want to be a part of the team this year. It's better to go and let people know what happened."

Schiffer admits he slacked off a little bit earlier this season. Springstead's Matt Booker provided the wakeup call by handing Schiffer a 7-2 loss at the Kiwanis Tournament.

"I was just like, "Oh my God,"' Schiffer said. "I can't believe I lost. I tech'ed him the year before. That opened my eyes. There was so much more I needed to do.

"That's what got me going."

But Schiffer already had all the tools to succeed. His frame belies his strength and he quickly absorbs moves, technique and strategy. "He's a natural wrestler," Goodpaster said. "He started as a freshman and he's always had the aptitude for it. What Derek does that a lot of kids can't do, he puts movement into his style, he doesn't stop and have hesitations.

"When he starts attacking he'll go three, four, five moves and he won't stop."

Another factor in the Gators' favor is that last season everyone expected Land O'Lakes to make a move. This season, can the Gators catch teams by surprise?

"It would be like, last year they knew we were coming and we didn't show up," Schiffer said. "But this year we're coming and they don't know about it."

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