November 24, 2022 — 6 a.m.
Over the past few seasons, Pace has graduated big classes, chock-full of victories, and in each year during those few seasons, the Patriots have been resilient enough to overcome and endure.
That should be the case once again in 2A-District 1, although — as it has been in other seasons — the margin for error for the Patriots, as with their fellow contenders for district titles, is pretty thin.
This year’s graduated group is a little smaller than typical in Patriot circles, with three Class of 2022 graduates moving on, including state medalist Atticus Waters (8th at 2A-160 in March) and an additional state qualifier.
But expectations are high, based in part upon a schedule that has usually seemed to get Pace ready for the FHSAA post-season series, as the Patriots have been the district’s only duals champion and have been region-level semifinalists each of the past three years.
This will be a younger group, for the most part, with junior Isaac Waters (182 a year ago) and sophomore Maeson Otwell (138 in 2022) both one match away from the podium as returning state qualifiers. The Patriots can call upon as many as 11 projected key returners to fuel their bid for a fifth district duals title and another top-5 region IBT finish.
Gulf Breeze was the district’s most consistent program last year; as teams moved up, down and around them, the Dolphins held second place in both dual and IBT formats, and have been quietly successful — consistently so — for years.
But can the Dolphins move to a place of pre-eminence? The offseason work might begin to tell the tale, and it might start with this year’s group, which could number as many as 13 strong. Junior Michael Mancuso (126 last year) was the team’s lone state qualifier, but the Dolphins do have eight returning region qualifiers.
Whether district pre-eminence is possible might depend on being able to seal the deal at regions. Last year, six Dolphin wrestlers all fell in the blood round — including a pair of 2022 graduates — and two more reached Saturday’s round, falling in the consis. That comes down to belief, often as not, and the offseason work happening should cultivate that side of the sport as well as the physical work.
Ft Walton Beach struggled early, even finishing fourth in district duals, but the Vikings closed in fine fashion, with the top state IBT finish (T-16th) in the district in addition to the district title. Having a state champion in the mix, as FWB did with Cedric Fairrow (220), goes a long way toward accomplishing those goals, but Fairrow is now graduated, along with a second state qualifier, and now in the Navy.
Still, though, the Vikings have a solid room, high expectations, and a returning cadre that could number 13 in all, all but two being post-season starters a year ago. Sophomore Landon Burbidge (106 in 2022) is a returning state qualifier for Ft Walton, which had three returners reach the region blood round in February, so the possibility for three qualifiers, or more, remains high.
Niceville has a big graduation loss to overcome, with six Class of 2022 wrestlers moving on in May, including 2A medalist Harrisen Wall (5th at 182) and an additional state qualifier in the cadre of graduates.
But the Eagles should hold fourth behind a returning group that could number 11 strong, led by junior 2022 state qualifier JJ Martinez (145 last year) and senior 2021 state qualifier Ethan Pinto (126 last year), one of two returning district champions in the program, thanks to the gap they’ve built between themselves and the rest of the district. Niceville will need to find some upper weights, but that hasn’t been a problem in the past.
With as many as 12 possible key returners back, and no graduation loss this past season, Tate might be able to move up a couple of notches in the district standings. While 10 of the Aggies’ 12 returners started in the post-season, though, just one reached the region tournament. For the cluster of teams looking for a midpack finish, it could come down to which group did the most offseason work.
Crestview will also bring back a double-digit (11 in all) returner class for first-year coach Robby Gaines, and the Bulldogs do have three wrestlers that reached the region round, including one Saturday qualifier. While the group is largely revamped, with many getting their first year of starting experience a year ago, the Bulldogs did lose a good chunk of their leadership to graduation.
Both Choctaw and Milton will have new head coaches, though neither are entirely unfamiliar to the area. The Indians lost their top two performers and a five-man Class of 2022 group to graduation, but can expect as many as 11 key returners for first-year HC Josh Carroll. However, none of them competed at regions a year ago, and several have yet to get their first district win. As for the Panthers, 2021-22 assistant Alex Alvarado moves up to the top spot, and the first order of business will be to fill a lineup. While Milton had no graduation loss to overcome, it has a numbers deficit compared to the rest of the district, with only four key returners expected back and just one with region experience.
Projected finish: 1. Pace. 2. Gulf Breeze. 3. Ft Walton Beach. 4. Niceville. 5. Tate. 6. Crestview. 7. Choctaw. 8. Milton.
CAPSULES HERE: 2A-DISTRICT 1 CAPSULES