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Twin titles culminate teammates' season

The wrestlers practiced on each other and reach their athletic acme together.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001

[Times photo: Kevin White]
Springstead High wrestler Gerard DeCristofaro hugs brother Anthony after the athlete's triumph over Herman Klinger of Jacksonville Bertram Trail.
LAKELAND -- Immediately after an exhausting but exhilarating victory Sunday night, Springstead High wrestler Matt Booker sat down on the floor of the Lakeland Center for another important matter: watching teammate Gerard DeCristofaro go after his own title.

It was hardly a coincidence that one friend's championship match should follow the other. The two Eagles had combined for one loss all season in neighboring weight classes.

Booker, a junior, dominated the 135-pound class, while DeCristofaro, a senior, had gone undefeated against the 140-pounders.

When DeCristofaro ended his perfect season with a 7-3 victory, the two wrestlers -- who had each spent a grueling six minutes avoiding all varieties of holds -- gave in to a big embrace of mutual admiration, of a well-deserved accomplishment they could not have reached without each other.

"Hard work pays off," DeCristofaro said, and the sentiment echoed as he went through a half-dozen hugs, not just the warm, pat-on-the-back, good-to-see-you variety, but the running, leaping, let-someone-squeeze-the-life-out-of-you celebrations only observed after these kinds of milestones.

First came coach Bob Levija, then DeCristofaro's father, Ralph, and brother Anthony, who had fallen just short of a state title on the same mats a year earlier. Finally, Decristofaro sprinted around the arena floor and up a set of stairs to find his mother, Nancy, in the stands.

"I've been working for this for four years," he said. "Nothing compares to this. I want to thank all my coaches. They made this happen."

"He's so happy," said Ralph DeCristofaro, and it was hard to tell which son he was talking about. Anthony had finished sixth, fifth and third in three trips to Lakeland, so Gerard DeCristofaro had set out this season to win a title for both of them.

DeCristofaro's daily training regimen had called for early-morning runs before school, more running at lunch and in a wrestling elective course that he took, then wrestling practice, another trip to the mats after dinner and one more run before bed.

"All the conditioning, it paid off," he said, pointing to the final two-minute period. With 1:45 left, he was tied with Jacksonville Bartram Trail's Herman Klinger at 1-1. With one minute left, DeCristofaro picked up a key takedown for a four-point lead and held tight to that the rest of the way.

Booker had been close to a state title last February, finishing third, and the brush with wrestling supremacy pushed him for the past year.

"I worked my (butt) off to get here," said Booker, whose final few minutes might have been the toughest of the year.

Booker's opponent, Rudy Leming of Fernandina Beach, had dominated his previous three opponents, pinning one in 44 seconds, another in 1:19 and defeating another by a 12-1 margin. Booker had two pins as well, but both were in the second period, along with a 15-2 victory. The extra mat time might have helped to prepare him for the final.

In the final, a crucial takedown at the end of the second period had given Booker a 7-2 lead on Leming. Leming battled back to within 7-5, but Booker controlled the last 20 seconds, enough so that coaches thought he should have been awarded five points for a late takedown.

As Booker and DeCristofaro compared their gold medals later, it seemed fitting that they should reach the pinnacle of their sport at the same time. Their comparable weights made them ideal drilling partners. Their sparring in practice was some of the toughest competition they faced all season.

"Working with each other, every day in practice, it had to make us both better," Booker said.

On a team brimming with wrestlers who pride themselves on winning because they work harder than anyone they line up against, Booker and DeCristofaro have led the way, on the mats and everywhere else their ambition has taken them.

"All the kids on this team work hard," Levija said. "Those two just work extra hard."

Hernando County has had at least one wrestler win a state title every year since 1991, and these two champions give Springstead nine during that stretch.

If the two wrestlers have one difference, it might be in what their victories represent for their families.

The youngest of three boys, DeCristofaro's title is the long-awaited realization of a family dream. Booker, the oldest of five boys, will be back next season and could inspire a veritable dynasty of titles from brothers Nate, Jason, Thaddeus and Jordan.

"I've been looking forward to (winning) this all year," Booker said. "You can multiply how I saw this times 10."

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