For the past couple of seasons, Clay had found itself in the role of chaser. Chasing Fleming Island for local dominance. Chasing Wakulla for northern small-school distance.
After the events of last year, this year’s group of Blue Devils are back to being chased by everyone in the north. To be fair, that’s something Clay relishes, as it’s got a string of 22 district titles (plus four district dual titles) to defend, which we are projecting the Blue Devils to do, even if the dominance last year’s Clay team achieved can’t be duplicated.
The Blue Devils were the Region 1 IBT champions and dual runners-up last year, with a 10th-place finish at states and 15th place at girls’ state. That group lost four May graduates, all of them post-season competitors, led by 1A state champion Cale Hoskinson (160).
But as it’s said, tradition never graduates, it just reloads, and this year’s group of returners is certainly the most-loaded in terms of numbers, with 20 projected wrestlers coming back (18 boys & 2 girls), 13 of them post-season starters and 12 reaching the region level.
That group includes, in addition to senior state girls’ defending champion Madisyn Blackburn (1st at 128 in February), seven FHSAA state qualifiers. Junior Dominic Martin, Clay’s lone returning boys medalist (6th at 152), will be joined by fellow returning state qualifiers Maverick Rainwater (senior, 113 in March); Chandler Thomas (sophomore, 132); Luke Boree (senior, 138); Josh Kumpf (senior, 145); Ethan Larsen (senior, 170); and Ethan Daniels (sophomore, 285). Joining that group was 2021 3A state qualifier Xavier Logan (132 last year), who transferred over from the rival Golden Eagles. That battle-tested group of veterans are this year’s leaders.
Palatka isn’t in a position, even as double-District 5 champions a year ago in both duals and IBT, to challenge Clay for top honors this year. But the Panthers have compiled two top-10 finishes in the Region 2 tournament in the last three years, and have had some solid representation at states as well.
Palatka lost just two region qualifiers from last year’s team, which can return as many as 10 key wrestlers for this coming year.
Of that group of 10, the Panthers had eight compete in the FHSAA post-season series, with all eight (including five District 5 individual champions) reaching the Region 2 tournament at Palm Bay. Junior Mikade Harvey (106 last year) not only reached the state tournament, but won a region title before taking 6th in Kissimmee. Harvey was joined at states a year ago by senior Brandon Lewis (132 last year), who might have been on track for a medal finish himself were it not for injury in the first round.
Should the Panthers falter from last year’s double-title performance in their new home, look for another new team to the district, Baker County, to step into the breach. If the Wildcats can overcome a May graduation loss that included three Saturday region qualifiers and two 1A state qualifiers, that is, and to do it with a first-year head coach running things.
It’s still very possible for Baker, which returns as many as 12 potential key returners from last year’s team. Nine of those 12 returners started for the Wildcats in the February post-season chase, with eight reaching the region round. March could see a second straight year with Baker County representation at states.
Bolles has consistently had a power-packed lineup, and one that typically wrestles at its best as the post-season is about to begin, but numbers have been an issue, and they could be again this year. Despite losing just one May graduate, a state qualifier (region champ Ethan Asbury), the Bulldogs have nine projected key returners back, so without an infusion of new blood, competing in duals is tricky (but Bolles did make the Region 1 quarterfinals last year).
Of those nine returners, all nine were post-season starters, with five reaching the region round. Senior Jack Pyburn staked his claim to hang with 1A state’s best 220s last year with a third-place finish at Kissimmee, falling only to the eventual champ in a titanic 9-7 semi. Fellow senior Jacob Witt qualified for states in 2020, and will be looking to get back there in February.
Union County had its first sanctioned season a year ago, and the Tigers’ full lineup was enough to get them a district IBT runnerup finish. This year, with a new coach at the helm, the program lost just five May graduates (three post-season starters) from a team that was only eclipsed by Clay in terms of returning numbers.
The Tigers have 17 projected key returners back (15 boys, 2 girls) from a year ago, with 12 competing in the post-season. Union has 10 returning Region 1 wrestlers back, but other than the possibility of a return from junior Christian Simmons, the Tigers’ only state qualifier (106 at Kissimmee last year), Union County has no other returning wrestlers that got past the first day of regions. Still, though, the size of the returning room is something serious to consider.
Keystone Heights needs numbers in order to crack the top half of this district after moving over from District 5, and while the Indians have seven returners that all competed in last year’s post-season and all made the Region 2 tournament, just four had more than 15 matches a year ago, and that cost them in the post-season run, as just one returning wrestler won one match at regions in Palm Bay. But Keystone lost just one May graduate, and if they can add some more numbers and then get those numbers some more matches, they could make some strides.
Wolfson is a team that seems like it could have the potential to move up the ladder this year, with just two May graduates (one that reached regions) and as many as 10 projected key returners back. Six of them were post-season starters in February and four wound up reaching the region tournament. But the offseason work just hasn’t been there for the Wolfpack, and none of last year’s region qualifiers got to the second day. If a couple of kids that were hurt last year can help more through the post-season, that will be of big benefit.
We aren’t fully sure what to expect from Tocoi Creek yet — at the time we wrote this, we didn’t have a schedule yet — but the Toros have a very established head coach returning to the area scene, and they have junior transfer Brielle Bibla (3rd at girls’ state at 106 in February) coming over this year. Bishop Snyder will be undergoing a bit of a reboot this year, but the Cardinals have up to five key returners back. However, just one of them competed in the post-season. Snyder also lost two post-season starters via graduation, including one state qualifier. After a year’s absence, FSDB is rebooting as a program, and that’s always an encouraging thought that the Dragons will be back, but at this writing, the team is still searching for a head coach after a previous hiring fell through.
Projected finish: 1. Clay. 2. Palatka. 3. Baker County. 4. Bolles. 5. Union County. 6. Keystone Heights. 7. Wolfson. 8. Tocoi Creek. 9. Bishop Snyder. 10. FSDB.
CAPSULES HERE: 1A-DISTRICT 4 CAPSULES