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#TurkeyNWrestling2021-22: 2A-District 1

The last time that a northern district had 10 teams in it was February 2013, just six months and change before Matmen began. That year, 2A-District 3 had 10 teams in it, and Orange Park held a comfortable but not overwhelming 22-point win over the rest of the field.

We go back to the future this coming year, as 2A-District 1 will contest a 10-team event in both duals and traditional format. And, we feel that an import, of sorts, will be finding itself on top of the district when it’s all over.

Mosley’s been in 2A-D1 before, but it’s been since 2015 that the Dolphins were in this Panhandle-strong district, and they were ninth that year. This year, between the size and talent of the group coming back and the talent of transfers coming in, we expect Mosley to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish (in District 2), and perhaps 10th at regions as well.

The Dolphins graduated four seniors from last year’s sizable group of kids, including a pair of state qualifiers. And while the pieces coming in don’t neatly fit those losses, the group as a whole will be benefited by five transfers from nearby teams, including one returning boys’ state qualifier in junior Lucas Biddle and two-time girls’ state medalist and junior Henlee Haynes (2020 state champ, runnerup last year), both of whom came over from now-district rival Arnold. That transfer list got a late boost when sophomore Valarie Solorio, who also was at Arnold last year, had quite the transfer route, starting with Mosley and finishing there, with an interim stop at Wyoming (PA) Seminary earlier in the fall. Solorio, fourth at girls’ state last year and a 1A-District 1 champ, adds to a loaded Dolphin lower-weight cadre.

Those transfers join a group of 10 probable key returners that are headlined by a pair of state-qualifiers in seniors Nick Hejke (a two-time Kissimmee medalist, 5th last year at 145) and Robert Wills (qualified at 285). In all, eight returning Dolphins have Region 1 experience, and there are a lot of wins to bring to bear up and down the lineup.

Mosley will have a group of teams chasing it for the top spot, as any one of four teams could break through and grab the top spot. It’s been since 2018 that Gulf Breeze won a district title, but the Dolphins (yes, the projection is Dolphins-Dolphins 1-2) might be able to make that run happen once again.

Gulf Breeze will have to overcome some graduation losses to make it happen, though. The Dolphins lost five post-season starters via that route in May, all five reaching the Region 1 round, with one state qualifier.

But they’ve got a substantial group coming back, with as many as 12 key returners from a year ago. Eight of those 12 had Region 1 weekends on their plate (with one who didn’t wrestle in the post-season reaching states in 2020). That group of overall returners will be led by a pair of returning state qualifiers in senior Logan Merritt (126 last year) and junior Colson Elliott (region champ at 132 a year ago).

Ft Walton Beach broke what had been Pace’s grip on district titles with the Vikings’ IBT win in February, qualifying for the FHSAA region round in duals for the second time as well.

The Vikings do have a substantial graduation loss to overcome this year, with six regular season-starting May graduates, five of them post-season starters. Of those, four got to Region 1 and three were 2021 state qualifiers (all four region qualifiers were in Kissimmee this past year or earlier).

But Ft Walton Beach has a solid group returning, with as many as 11 projected key returners from a year ago eligible to return. Seven of those 11 were post-season starters — all seven were region qualifiers, as three won district titles. Senior Cedric Fairrow, who had an undefeated season at 220 going into the state tournament, returns from a third-place medal experience at Silver Spurs.

Pace’s team last year, coming off of five District 1 titles in duals or IBTs in that season and the two previous, did something no other Panhandle team has yet done, as the Patriots got to the Region 1 final in the first day of the FHSAA state duals tournament.

Four months later, however, the Patriots encountered the district’s biggest graduation loss, as Pace lost eight May graduates that included seven post-season starters, six of those seven as Region 1 qualifiers, and two of those six getting to individual states.

At the same time, however, Pace boasts the deepest room in the district, with a group as big as 18 projected key returners from a year ago. Last year’s depth will have to step into larger roles, though, as just eight were post-season starters (including one girls’ state competitor). The Patriots have five returners with Region 1 experience, and the group as a whole will be led by March state qualifier Atticus Waters (145 last year).

Niceville’s group of returners, from a size standpoint, is second-biggest in the district; only Pace’s is larger. The Eagles have as many as 15 possible kids eligible to return from last year’s team. However, a lot of them (in fact, seven) were part-time starters last year, and didn’t compete in the post-season. Niceville lost only three seniors to graduation, but all of them were region qualifiers; two qualified for states and one reached the Kissimmee podium (David Polaski, 4th at 220 in March).

But the Eagles do have eight post-season starters back. Four of them got to regions and two of those four — senior Martin Black (170 last year) and junior Ethan Pinto (120 in March) — qualified out for states.

If any team projected to finish outside the bottom half makes a move, it might be Choctaw that is best positioned to make that move. That’s the case because of the combination of just one May graduate from last year’s team along with a returning group of up to 13 wrestlers that had double-digit matches or post-season experience.

The downside for the Indians might be a lack of deeper post-season experience; of the 13 possible returners, only four reached the Region 1 round and just two of those four got to Saturday.

Compared to their neighbors immediately above them in the preseason projections, Crestview will have a smaller group back, after losing five post- or regular-season starters to graduation, including the Bulldogs’ lone 2021 district champ. They’ve got as many as seven key returners coming back, and while all have some post-season experience (four got to Region 1), the group as a whole had just one win in the region weekend

Milton has some numbers issues to work through, but from a relative point of view, I think the Panthers can hold on to an eighth-place spot at least. This year’s group of up to six projected key returners lost just one May graduate, and the momentum of last year’s team as a whole was significantly impacted by Covid, leading to a lack of mat time. There are a couple of solid kids that could make deeper runs in the post-season series, and the Panthers have been a program that is engaging in offseason work at the community level.

Numbers also could plague Tate and Arnold, with the Marlins making their foray a classification up in 2A. The Aggies lost three regular-season starters that were their top performers in the regular season, but they have five potential returners back, including one Region 1 qualifier. Between graduation and transfer loss, the Marlins wound up losing six regular-season starters, with — in addition to Biddle and Haynes — sophomore wunderkind Valorie Solorio transferring first to Mosley, then Wyoming (PA) Seminary before landing a few weeks ago at North Bay Haven. With a first-year HC in hand, Arnold’s first goal is numbers, as the Marlins have only two projected starters back from last year, one of them a returning Region 1 qualifier.

Projected finish: 1. Mosley. 2. Gulf Breeze. 3. Ft Walton Beach. 4. Pace. 5. Niceville. 6. Choctaw. 7. Crestview. 8. Milton. 9. Tate. 10. Arnold.

CAPSULES HERE: 2A-DISTRICT 1 CAPSULES

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