November 24, 2022 — 6 a.m.
It’s not entirely true that talent never graduates and moves on.
But it’s the test of resiliency that separates the stronger programs from the contenders, and while Apopka may not be what it was a year ago, when the Blue Darters bagged a top-5 region finish and nearly a top-20 state finish, I see the defending 3A-District 4 champions as having enough left in the tank to add another double-district win this coming year.
It won’t be easy. The Darters graduated four district champs, including 3rd-at-state Ralph Sanchez (220) and six seniors — all region qualifiers from a year ago — in all. Transfer took another top performer and state qualifier, as well as some coaching leadership, out of Region 1.
But Apopka will still bring back eight projected key returners, seven of them post-season starters and all seven of those reaching the region round.
Leading that group will be senior Tamarion Kendrick (7th at 120 a year ago), one of two returning district champs and the district’s lone returning state qualifier (region runnerup at 120). He’ll have some fellow senior returners to help pick up the mantle of leadership laid down by Sanchez and his classmates, and if Apopka can find a few middles, they could get close to last year’s heights.
Looking at the groups chasing the Blue Darters in-district, I am tabbing Ocoee — as of now — as the group likeliest to lead the chasers.
Ocoee has the kind of schedule and the mindset, among their top performers, to contend. The Knights bigs are going to lead the charge, with a pair of wrestlers up top that both reached the blood round a year ago. The Knights have as many as eight key returners, and with the stars they’ve got, could be a threat for second, particularly in IBT format.
Ocoee does have a five-pack of graduated leadership to overcome, though, and that’s the main reason I am concerned in the Knights’ ability to hold second; included in that quintet were a trio of 3-year starters whose leadership will be difficult to replace. There’s some dropoff after the bigs, as well; no other returner has a win at the region level from last year.
Olympia’s got the kind of size in a returning group that I really like to see. The Titans could have as many as nine key returners back from last year’s team, which was third in both duals and IBT. I would not be surprised at all if this group qualifies out for the region round, especially in duals, because there is a certain level of consistency across the weight classes.
While there’s not a big graduation loss to overcome for the Titans, what the current group has to do is make the jump competitively to the next level, which is often a mental as much as a physical jump. A lot of them took lumps as starting freshmen and got tastes of success last year. Things are there for this group, if they reach out and grab them.
We’re seeing Windermere, on first blush, in the middle of the group. The Wolverines had an excellent season a year ago, getting to the FHSAA region round and sending up their first wrestler in program history to Silver Spurs Arena. They’ll have eight key returners back from that team, so a solid nucleus returns for first-year HC Aaron Drone.
The difficulty is a frequent byproduct of last year’s successes — as is so often the case for developing programs — in that a key group of graduated talent, five in all in the Wolverines’ case (including their state qualifier), has to be replaced. Those wrestlers were the initial building-blocks of the Windermere program, and their leadership might be harder to replace than the wins they brought.
West Orange has an experienced group of middles, with a trio’s worth of senior leadership all ensconced there, with two additional underclassmen, but the Warriors are and have been short-handed for some while, with only five key returners back. The team could push into top-half contention with some new blood in the lineup, as the gap between third and fifth isn’t all that large.
If Dr Phillips and South Lake can pull together some fresh faces into the lineup, each team could contend for mid-pack finishes. The Panthers lost all of their upper weights but one off of last year’s group, and uppers had the most success for them in reaching the region round. They’ll be able to count on at least four projected key returners. As for our newest team moving into Region 1, the Eagles also come in short-handed from 2A-Region 2, with just two key returners back, but could be in the mix for states, as one of those two was their top performer a year ago, and reached the blood round in 2A-R2, no easy feat.
Projected finish: 1. Apopka. 2. Ocoee. 3. Olympia. 4. Windermere. 5. West Orange. 6. Dr Phillips. 7. South Lake.
CAPSULES HERE: 3A-DISTRICT 4 CAPSULES