The giant shadow that Fleming Island cast upon 3A-District 1 has moved on, and the knights that did their best to topple the giant appear to top the heap in the district this season.
And under the direction of a first-year head coach in Rory Roderick, Oakleaf’s kids spent a lot of time in the Fleming off-season academy room this spring and summer. That, and the numbers that the Knights could bring back this season, give Oakleaf a slight leg up going into 2021-22.
With former coach Marcus Miller focusing solely upon athletic director responsibilities this year, the Clay Knights have taken to the offseason work ethic that Roderick has maintained, after a season in which Oakleaf was third in both District 1 dual and traditional series, going on to place ninth at Region 1.
The Knights can call upon as many as 13 projected key returners, led by a pair of state qualifiers in senior Marcus McGee (126 last year) and junior Isaiah Shevchook (195 in 2020-21). Of that group, which also includes sophomore girls’ state medalist Jazzmine Moore (4th at 184), four additional wrestlers had Region 1 experience last year.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t questions to answer. Of the 13 Oakleaf projected returners, six didn’t compete in the February post-season. Additionally, the Knights did lose seven May graduates, four with region experience and two of those four with state experience.
Creekside will be right there should the Clay Knights falter in any way. The St Johns Knights actually had the better post-season run, particularly in the traditional series, as Creekside was second to Fleming at districts, and finished seventh at Region 1, with three state qualifiers.
Of those three, just senior Diego Rivera (152 in February) returns for this year’s group, which numbers as many as 12 projected key returners from a year ago. Five of those returners got to Saturday at regions. The bookends appear to be Creekside’s incoming strength, at least in terms of experienced kids returning and having nailed down spots to which they should return.
But Creekside does have to overcome eight graduation losses; five of those eight got to regions and two reached the state tournament. The Knights’ returners in the middle, other than Rivera and one other senior, didn’t get much mat time in part-time roles, and will have to mature quickly to match the intensity that the Creekside bookends will bring.
For several reasons and seasons now, Mandarin’s been a team of interest for us (Editor’s Note: we were a Mustang parent for three years, though not of an athlete) and this year is promising to be the most exciting for the group since the site began, what with not one but two returning state medalists in seniors Tony Carter (4th at 182 last year) and Jameel Smith (6th at 132). Those two headline a group of seven key returners, six of which had region experience, that also got a fair amount of offseason work in, a first in our recollection.
But even with losing four seniors — all region competitors, one of them a state qualifier — to graduation, there’s still the question of filling a lineup that continued to plague Mandarin in prior years. The Mustangs compensated for that in great measure behind their individual star power, but in order to feed the ambitions that star power started feeding, they’ve got to fill a lineup and the new parts of that lineup need to get up to speed, and quickly.
We’d had more hopes for Bartram Trail last year, and while they did have one boys medalist in junior Ethan Vugman (4th at 106 last year), the Bears went from runners-up in duals down to fifth for the IBT portion, with injuries and other mishaps keeping several regular-season starters out of the post-season lineup.
While Bartram only lost three to graduation, including girls medalist Talia Megas (6th at 140 last year), the Bears do have 12 key returners back from last year’s team. However, including Vugman, just four of those returners had region experience last year. More of the returners came from the lower half of the lineup, but we didn’t see much in off-season work from that group, other than Vugman, plus one other upperweight.
Among teams that I project for now in the bottom half, I’d give Nease the nod for now based upon projected returning numbers alone. The St Johns Panthers lost just two graduates from last year’s team, but took a hit with 2x girls’ state placer Brielle Bibla (3rd at 106 in February) moving over to Tocoi Creek for her final two seasons. Still, though, Nease could have as many as 10 key kids back this year, four with Region 1 experience, and that number advantage might be enough.
First Coast returns to 3A after a two-year hiatus in 2A-District 3, and the Buccaneers have to rebuild quite a bit after losing five region qualifiers to graduation. Of the five possible key returners from last year’s side, just one had region experience, and it was a pretty quick experience. First Coast had some solid efforts, particularly at Gateway, but finishing in the top third in that tournament again this year might be difficult.
If there’s a surprise in the district, Sandalwood might just be that surprise. The Saints lost their top two kids to graduation, including 3A state 3rd Dante Rigal at 126, and have just two potential key returners back, but the coaching staff will be quite energetic, and that could encourage new blood to give the sport a try. Atlantic Coast got a few new kids out last year, but a general lack of mat time was an issue in getting those new kids seasoning, and the Stingrays have at most three key returners to call on as the season begins this year.
Projected finish: 1. Oakleaf. 2. Creekside. 3. Mandarin. 4. Bartram Trail. 5. Nease. 6. First Coast. 7. Sandalwood. 8. Atlantic Coast.
CAPSULES HERE: 3A-DISTRICT 1 CAPSULES