KISSIMMEE – Fleming Island High wrestling got two champions out of a singular gathering of some of the toughest wrestlers in the southeastern United States with Georgia and Florida powerhouses …
KISSIMMEE – Fleming Island High wrestling got two champions out of a singular gathering of some of the toughest wrestlers in the southeastern United States with Georgia and Florida powerhouses Camden County and South Dade high schools once again punching out a top two finish just slightly ahead of Fleming Island in the annual two-day slufgest at Knockout Christmas Invitational at Osceola High School in Kissimmee.
“My philosophy when it comes to us getting a lot of semifinalists and facing off against the best wrestlers around is with hopes that they get a little tougher each time,” said Fleming Island coach P.J. Cobbert, who saw two of his three finalists; 134-pounder JaQuan English and 172-pounder Paul Detwiler earn individual titles, while 115-pounder Briar Jackson lost a grueling 1-0 decision to a Camden County state champion in his finals match. “It’s a tough thing to keep getting beat up in semifinals and then having to wrestle four or five more times to get a medal. We got three in; two champs this time.”
English and Detwiler join Jason Davis, a graduate of Fleming Island who won the Class 3A 182 pound title last year, as Knockout champions from Fleming Island.
For the team finishes, Camden County got their third crown in a row with a hard-fought 226.5 points to edge South Dade at 223.5. South Dade last won at Knockout in 2014 with Fleming Island 11th. Camden County beat Lake Highland in 2015 with South Dade third and Fleming Island 11th. Fleming Island, fourth last year behind Southwest Miami, hung on for third at 181.5. In fourth, Lake Gibson was a distant 137.0 with Union Grove, GA, at 107, and Southwest Miami, at 103.0 the rest of the 100-plus points finishers in the 38-team format.
Union Grove senior Justin Ruffin, a 33-0, 145 pound Georgia state champion, had the most impressive day of the meet with two wins over two Florida superstars at 152 pounds; Tampa Prep’s Anthony Artalona, an overtime semifinal win, and South Dade’s Brevin Balmeceda, in the final also in overtime. Artalona and Balmeceda are both defending state champions and both nationally ranked wrestlers with recent national titles.
With six semifinalists; English, Detwiler, Jackson, Lou Gagliardo at 108, Albie Snedaker at 122 and Jose Concepcion at 287, Cobbert had his team positioned for a strong finals’ run that could have upset the Camden County/South Dade powergrab at the top. The three teams were within eight points of each other after the first day of competition; 102.5 for Camden County, 101.5 for Fleming Island and 100.5 for South Dade.
For perspective, Camden County and South Dade are both multiple times state champion programs; Camden County with more than a dozen region titles and four state titles back to 2012 under coach Jess Wilder while South Dade has dominated the Class 3A-5A ranks back to 1997 with 11 state titles; the last four in a row, under coach Victor Balmeceda. South Dade won its first state title in 1995 under coach Mike McCoy with Balmeceda taking over in 1997 and finishing second in his first year and first in his second year in 5A.
Fleming Island has inched up closer with their second last year to South Dade under Cobbert with finishes of seventh, 12th, sixth and second in the past four years. Fleming Island also had a second in nation finish at the AAU Scholastic Duals national championships.
“They (Fleming Island) have been on the radar for a while,” said Balmeceda, prior to the semifinal rounds at Knockout. “Now, they are seasoned and poised to take a shot at a state title. That’s good to see. We like the competition when we come to a meet like this.”
Balmeceda reiterated comments from Wilder, also prior to the semifinal round, that the key to success is pretty simple.
“The wrestler has to be passionate about putting in the work in the offseason and you have to have coaches willing to coach longer than four months out of the year,” said Balmeceda. “P.J. (Cobbert) has been taking his team to the Disney Duals (AAU Scholastic Wrestling Nationals, 2nd in 2017) and that has paid off for their program.”
Balmeceda was well aware of Cobbert’s four state titles, but extended his view into having the athletes buy into the system.
“At the beginning, my arrogance started rubbing off on the kids because right from the beginning I was confident we were going to win a state title,” said Balmeceda, who admitted not being a high school wrestling standout, but excelled as a college wrestler at Appalachian State. “Once we won that first title, the success just started building from there. P.J. is following the same path with the youth programs and everything he does up there. He obviously knows how to wrestle from his history.”
For Cobbert, brimming with a little anxiety of facing up with the perennial powers, the time just before the semifinals was a little tense.
“This is the moment that counts,” said Cobbert. “We got here, now we have to push some guys though. Right now, our kids got the jitters. Like I said, the more they are in the mix, the more those nerves go away. I tell them there is no match any different than the last match. There’s a wrestling mat and another guy; plain and simple. We try to not elevate the opponent.”
Wilder’s success at Camden County has become legendary with his frequent treks into Florida measuring up his team against his southern opponents.
“I’m not really surprised to see Fleming Island up here with us and South Dade in a match of this caliber,” said Wilder. “We train and compete with them a lot. It’s smart to utilize our proximity to maximize training. Also, if we can wrestle them and see different styles, it helps up in Georgia when our state meets are staged earlier than Florida. We have everything to gain by competing in Florida.”
Wilder sees Cobbert’s rise into state prominence as a product of his time in the program; four years, a key for Wilder.
“Time, it takes a couple of years to get the foundation of juniors and seniors to beat up on freshmen and sophomores and then those guys getting better and it cycles itself each year,” said Wilder, whose son Rayden, a Georgia state titleist, won the Knockout 154 pound title. “I think the kids respond to P.J. because he’s in the corner fighting for them. Some kids compete harder and it’s a combination of a lot of things; coaching, home, school that drives it.”
In the championships matches for Fleming Island, Jackson, who had to defeat Virginia state champion Devin Sweeney to advance, took an 8-3 win over Sweeney, from Potomac Senior High School, before losing a second time this season to Camden County’s Nicholas Krug, a 106 Georgia champion last year, 1-0. Jackson was fourth at Knockout last year at 108.
At 134, English, 36-1, who lost his first match of the season last week in Georgia to Georgia state champion Ricardo Santana of Toombs County with just three seconds left in the match, stormed through his lineup to win his first title at Knockout with a 5-3 win over Union Grove, GA, 113 state champion Bryson Nease, who was 20-2.
Detwiler, at 170, remained unbeaten at 38-0 and muscled through three pins to the semifinal then one of his closest matches of the year against Tallahassee Lincoln’s Justin Grant, a 2A third placer last year who was unbeaten prior to the match. Detwiler, who suffered his first scored take down against him, won with the brute strength of two defensive whizzers to take a 4-2 match. In his final, against Lake Gibson’s 2A 145 pound champion Ashton Habell, Detwiler won convincingly at 10-6. Detwiler finished fourth last year to South Dade’s Todd Perry.
In the first semifinal of the day, Gagliardo faced off against South Dade newcomer Luis Peraza, at 27-2, and lost a tough 6-4 decision despite having Peraza inches from a pin. Gagliardo responded to take third with a 9-2 win over Camden County’s Nathan Orum. Peraza won the final.
At 122, Fleming Island’s Albie Snedaker drew South Dade state champion Bretli Reyna in his semifinal and had Reyna nearly tilted in the second period before falling 16-4. Snedaker wrestled back to a fourth place finish with Dylan Kohn of Hagerty winning 6-1 for third. Reyna won the final.
At 287, Jose Concepcion, got to the semifinal to face South Dade’s Trayvonne Jackson, who was fourth at 285 in 3A last year for Miami Killian with Concepcion finishing sixth. Concepcion had upper control of the massive Jackson into the second period before Jackson, who eventually finished second, put Concepcion on his back for a pin. Concepcion fought back to a fifth place finish with an overtime win over Dion Bergan of Osceola, 5-3. Concepcion beat Bergan in the quarterfinals 3-2 to advance. Concepcion was fourth last year.