I expect the fight for the 1A-District 3 titles to be among the most hotly-contested anywhere in the coverage area. There are arguably four teams who could very well wind up being in that mix. We saw that play out several times during the course of last season. This year will not be different; in fact, I think the margins of error get even more razor-thin.
And it’s by the thinnest of razor-thins that I take two-time 1A-District 3 defending champion Yulee as the early favorite to win the district, but the Hornets — coming off a double-district title season last year, with a Sweet 16 FHSAA dual series appearance and a third at the 1A-Region 1 IBT tournament — are going to have to scrap for every inch of advantage that favorite’s tag might give them.
First thing is overcoming a pretty substantial loss of May graduates that provided a huge amount of intangible leadership to the program. That group, numbering six region qualifiers in all, included four 1A state tournament qualifiers, led by state medalist Aston Ricks (6th at 160 in March), who’s now at Luther (IA) College.
But the Hornets do have a substantial group coming back, with a group of 11 potential key returners that either wrestled 10 matches last year or competed in the post-season tournament. Eight of those 12 wrestled in the post-season, and all but one of those reached the Region 1 weekend. Returning state qualifiers Dylan Johns (junior, 138 at Kissimmee a year ago) and Braylen Ricks (sophomore, 195 last year) will lead this battle-tested cadre.
Bishop Kenny had some struggles down the homestretch of the 2020-21 season, taking mid-pack finishes in both the district and region tournaments. But the Crusaders have back the head coach that guided the program to five straight district titles, and it will not be easy for Yulee to add to its streak in January or February.
Bishop Kenny lost just two seniors from last year’s team, both of them region qualifiers, and one of them a state qualifier. The Crusaders do, however, return 13 potential key returners from a year ago, including four seniors who wrestled under their returning coach.
Also included in that group are nine post-season starters, all of whom qualified out for regions, led by junior and returning state qualifier Collin Hearn (152 at Kissimmee last year).
Fernandina Beach had a very solid — if understated — 2020-21 season, with 27 dual victories and a T-5th finish in the Region 1 tournament. The Pirates are quietly building a very successful program, and this year’s edition of Pirates number 13 potential key returners, 10 of them serving as 2020-21 post-season starters last year. Of those eight got to the region tournament, led by sophomore March state qualifier Enzo Gamba, a defending Region 1 champ (152 last year).
If the Pirates can overcome the loss of five May graduates, including a trio of region 1 qualifiers, two of whom joined Gamba at states (and, like Gamba, lost in the blood round), the defending Nassau County champions will be a force to contend with again, not only in the district but also the region.
Episcopal had a season where it found itself flirting with a top-five ranking in the Jacksonville newspaper’s weekly poll last year, but the Eagles did fade somewhat down the stretch, as its youthful lineup couldn’t sustain the early momentum it built. That group lost four May graduates, including three region and one state qualifier.
Don’t be surprised if this year’s group outperforms this prediction, however. The Eagles bring back the biggest group of potential returners in the district (16 in all). Ten of that 16 were post-season starters last year, with seven getting to regions. Episcopal should have more than one state qualifier in March.
Raines won’t have the numbers to compete in a duals environment with any of the top half of the district, but don’t be surprised if the Vikings wind up with more state medals and a higher Kissimmee finish (ninth at Region 1 and 11th at states). While the Vikings lost state medalist Raynarde Thomas (6th at 170 at Kissimmee) to graduation, they bring back six key returners, including three state medalists in seniors De’Quon King (Region 1 champ and state 3rd at 113), Jamari Watson (state 3rd at 195) and Jada Arnold (5th at girls’ state at 184). All six of their returners were post-season starters last year. They just need more numbers.
West Nassau is under a new head coach this year, and lost just one graduate — albeit not only a region but also a state qualifier — in May. The Warriors have up to eight potential key returners back from last season’s group, but just half were post-season starters. However, all four of them were region qualifiers and got to day 2 of that tournament as well,
Numbers are also going to present significant issues for both Paxon and University Christian as well. The Golden Eagles do have as many as seven key returners — including the first two girls’ state participants in school history — but of the five boys that can come back, just one got to the region round. As for the Christians, who lost their entire group to either graduation or transfer, no one is exactly certain what this year’s group will look like. UCS is set to host the District 3 traditional tournament and hopes to put together a lineup once the Christians’ football season comes to conclusion.
Projected finish: 1. Yulee. 2. Bishop Kenny. 3. Fernandina Beach. 4. Episcopal. 5. Raines. 6. West Nassau. 7. Paxon. 8. University Christian.
CAPSULES HERE: 1A-DISTRICT 3 CAPSULES