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Nationals part of year-round plan

For some area wrestlers, the competition does not end with the high school season.

By BRANT JAMES

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


SPRING HILL -- Gerard DeCristofaro knows all about wrestling's Junior Nationals. He and his father, Ralph, trekked to the Fargo, N.D., event last summer to watch his older brother, Anthony, compete there for Team Florida.

Watching was one thing. Wrestling in the Fargo Dome Saturday through July 29 in a showcase of some of the nation's top talent is another.

Pardon DeCristofaro is he's not spooked. After finishing 41-4 for Springstead High last season, he thinks he'll make the adjustment.

"Probably this time, being it's my first time actually wrestling, I might get a little nervous," said the rising senior. "But it should all go away when I get down in there and start wrestling. After the first match, it's just like a regular tournament."

It's really not, however. In it's 30th year, the Junior Nationals event has become a proving ground for the United States' future international wrestlers. A former Junior Nationals champion has won a gold medal in every Olympics since 1984.

"It's the biggest and most respected youth tournament in the world," said Gary Abbott of USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body. "You're going to see 3,600 athletes here, some of them the future of the sport working their way toward the Olympic team.

"And obviously, it's a big place for college recruiters to come and get a look."

The tournament is another in an endless string for DeCristofaro, 17, teammate Matt Booker, and Lecanto's Harold Skidmore, who also will represent Florida. Booker, at age 15, will compete in the "Cadet" competition for younger wrestlers.

"They are going to come back with a wealth of information," said Springstead coach Bob Levija. "They'll come back and teach me a lot. They always come back with stuff I can learn."

DeCristofaro, training year-round with Booker in the Eagles' perpetually open wrestling room, said he competes in roughly 30 tournaments aside from his high school schedule.

"You really have to love the sport to wrestle in the summer," DeCristofaro said. "Because if you don't have the desire to win, then I don't think you can handle summer wrestling with having to lose the weight every other weekend."

Booker competes in about 15 off-season events. He has won his weight-class championship in every tournament he has entered this year except one, when he was beaten by teammate and 125-pound state champ Jimmy Stevenson in a Juniors event.

"We're in here pretty much every week just wrestling around and everything," said Booker, who will compete his second Junior Nationals. "It pretty much keeps us up. During practice and stuff you'll pretty much maintain the weight and probably cut six pounds to get down to the weight you want to wrestle at the big tournaments."

Booker, who was 39-8 and third in the state in the 119-pound class as a sophomore last season, will compete in the 132-pound division in Fargo. He went 3-2 in Greco-Roman and 2-2 in freestyle last year.

DeCristofaro also will compete at 132.

Anthony DeCristofaro qualified again for the tournament, but plans to leave for college in San Bruno, Calif., on July 25.

The DeCristofaros and Booker earned a spot on Team Florida -- joining Dustin Swanton and four others as Springstead wrestlers who have participated -- by finishing in the top three in their weight class at a qualifier in Winter Springs in March. Booker won his class and Gerard DeCristofaro finished second at the qualifier.

Next they had to pay roughly $1,000 in expenses to make the trip.

The financial cost is another Booker is willing to pay to fulfill ambitions.

"I want to go to college and wrestle and go the Olympic trials," he said. "I want to see how high I can get."

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