By: Shannon Heaton
Most of Fleming Island's wrestlers wore singlets with their names on the back Saturday.
The target of being heavily-favored might have settled on the Golden Eagles' backs just as well, but Fleming Island proved more than ready for that challenge, dominating the 3A District 1 eight-team field at Mandarin, qualifying all 13 of their wrestlers for next weekend's Region 1 tournament at University High School in Orange City.
As it turned out, the Eagles were a 2-1 semifinal loss in one weight class from having all 13 reach the finals on Saturday. Fleming Island easily outdistanced Fletcher for the district team title, 262-190, although the Senators were able to match Fleming's number of qualifiers.
"We came in expecting everybody to qualify, and we thought we might get everybody into the finals," Fleming Island coach Travis Cunningham said. "We had a great week of practice this week, probably our best week of the season. We really pushed the guys. We'll need that same preparation next week, maybe back off the physical and maybe a little more technique work.
"We're hoping to win the region. Last year, we were in the top three and this year we'll be neck-and-neck with Winter Springs."
If a region win happens, it might be Fleming's dynamite lower weights that set the tone. The Eagle lowers certainly did on Saturday, sweeping the first eight weight classes (106 pounds through 152), and earning bonus points in the finals of seven of those, collecting 10 titles on the day.
Sophomore Chase Robison pinned his way through the bracket at 106, as did freshman teammate Xavier Sampsel at 113. Junior Evan McCall put on a tilting clinic at 120, with a pin and two technical falls for his title, while fellow junior Charles Cuthbert (126) needed just two first-period falls. The Fleming seniors got in on the act as well, with Victor Espana winning by major decision at 132.
Freshman David Detwiler had to gut out two decisions after a first-round fall to take the 138 title, while fellow freshman John Martorano put on a takedown clinic in racking up two pins and a major decision at 145. At 152, junior Heath Whiddon pinned his way through the bracket, and senior Nick Baliya racked up a pin and major decision to win at 170. Sophomore Austin Smenda closed out the Eagles' run of titles with a solid 8-2 decision win at 195.
"We're still very young," Cunningham said. "We did have three freshmen that were district champs, but a lot of our kids come in with club experience and have wrestled at national tournaments, so they know how to win at the level of a region tournament."
Ben Galloway (160) and Carter Hudgins (285) both added runnerup finishes for the Eagles, while Cameron Lakoskey battled out of the consolations to take third at 182.
"We know what we have to do, we know to get mentally ready to do what we have to do," Baliya said. "We couldn't ask for better coaches. They believe in us. They tell us not to settle for (trying to make state) senior year. Do it freshman year. Do it any of our years. You don't have to wait to senior year to do it. We're peaking, and we're doing it at the right time."
Fletcher found itself on the receiving end of quite a few Fleming Island lessons, particularly in the finals, where there were six Senators-Eagles matchups. All went Fleming Island's way. So, although Fletcher coach Roy Fallon was happy to get 13 out to next week, it was a tempered happiness at best.
"Fleming worked really hard and earned everything they had out there," Fallon said of the Eagles, noting that logistical difficulties -- Duval County allows only a 50-mile regular-season travel radius, which in the Senators' case includes 25 miles of Atlantic Ocean -- made creating an elite schedule difficult for his group. "Our biggest goal now is try to get as many guys through and qualified (for state). They're not all going to be champs, obviously, but we would like to see them make it through. Some of our seconds and maybe some thirds can push through. If they work hard."
Fletcher did have one champion, as senior Richard St. John needed just 70 seconds to earn two pins and a title at 182.
"Wrestling these good teams, you may lose, but you learn something every time. That's better than winning and not learning anything," St. John said. "Seeing all of our guys do what their supposed to do, getting 13 out of 14 out, is a real good thing."
Jonathan Caballero (106), Jake Loizos (120), Cal Rodgers (126), David Temple (138), Jordan Suttles (145), Malcolm Johnson (195) and Matthew Farinella (220) all took runnerup finishes for the Senators, who also saw thirds from Mitchell Lein (113), Joshua Sweeten (132) and Cameron Blackburn (152), as well as fourths from William Kohlhaas (160) and Ryan Eldeb (285). Kohlhaas had to win two matches in the consolation round after dropping his first-round dual with Fleming Island's Galloway to punch his ticket for region.
Locally, First Coast took fifth place in the tournament, with 52 points, while Sandalwood was sixth at 44 1/2, the host Mustangs seventh at 37 and Ed White eighth with 15.
The Buccaneers advanced three to region. All of them -- Erik Sirmans at 106, Jahlan Walker at 195 and Scott Dollison at 220 -- placed third at their weights.
Likewise, Sandalwood moved three on, including 170-pound finalist Dameco Manning, who finished second to Fleming's Baliya. The Saints also got a third at 160 from Trey Richardson and a fourth at 106 with Alex Barie.
Mandarin moved five wrestlers on to Saturday, with junior 285-pounder Codie Miller leading the way with a third. Fellow Mustangs Joshua Harris (113), Justus Walker (132), Douglas James (170) and Samuel Hernandez (182) all finished fourth. Ed White's lone representative at region was 120-pound Juwan Lee, who finished third.
1010xl.com blogger Shannon Heaton moved from Illinois to Jacksonville two years ago. Heaton won three awards for his wrestling coverage in two states over a 15-year career, covering high schools and both NCAA Division I and III college teams in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @QChawkeyeinFL.
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