WESLEY CHAPEL -
It was an urge Gulf coach Travis DeWalt couldn't resist.
As Gulf's 112-pound wrestler R.J. O'Conner approached DeWalt at the conclusion of Saturday night's Sunshine Athletic Conference Wrestling Tournament, O'Connor's smile quickly dissolved.
"We didn't get to 400," DeWalt said referring to the 382 points his Buccaneers scored. "Tell them that's more miles. You missed it by 18. We'll meet [Sunday] before the Super Bowl."
DeWalt's wry smile gave it away. It was merely a joke, but considering his level of competitiveness, one wouldn't be surprised if he was serious.
Gulf collected its sixth SAC tournament title in nine years, qualifying 10 wrestlers for the finals. It's the most SAC finalists the Bucs have ever had. Of those 10, four - Jarod Carpenter (103), O'Connor (112), Anthony Ayers (119) and Ladarius Jackson (152) - were crowned champions.
"I think it's vindication, nobody likes second," DeWalt said in reference to last season's second place finish. "There's no difference between second, third, fourth or fifth. We didn't win it and we've gotten pretty accustomed to going to the conference tournament and winning it.
"My guys work hard and like I said earlier, we don't expect to lose. When we do lose, we have to go back to the chalkboard and figure out how it happened. Today was a great day."
River Ridge was the closest competitor, finishing with 252 points. Wiregrass (222) was third, while Mitchell and Sunlake (203) tied for fourth place.
The first six bouts of the finals featured a Gulf wrestler. Carpenter got the Bucs off to a swift start when he pinned Zephyrhills' Nate VanDam in 1:58. O'Connor followed that up with a 15-7 major decision victory against Justin McKay of Land O' Lakes.
It was the fourth time the wrestlers met, each collecting two victories.
"It feels great," said O'Connor, a sophomore. "I've wanted that all week. My coach said he's beatable and I just found out that he was. I was so nervous, I wanted to puke before my match."
The nerves gave way to wrestling.
Entering the third period, O'Connor held on to a 7-6 advantage. From the down position, O'Connor was able to hit a switch to his right, putting McKay on his back. McKay escaped, but once back on the mat, O'Connor rolled him to his back, taking an 11-7 lead.
As O'Connor continued to control McKay, he heard DeWalt shout there was less than 10 seconds remaining in the bout. The smile on his face grew wider and wider from that point.
After Ayers' major decision victory made it three consecutive wins in the finals by Gulf, Land O' Lakes Kevin Engle snapped the streak with his 8-6 decision against Gulf's Josh Isom. Engle fought through an early bloody nose to earn the 125-pound title.
"Actually, I get a bloody nose a lot," he said laughing. "Every other match. Really, it's nothing new."
In order of toughness, Engle ranked Saturday's finals match as his top 5.
The SAC was a primer of sorts for Pasco County's wrestlers as the district tournament competition begins Feb. 7. Mitchell will compete in the Class 3A-District 6 tournament at East Lake; Land O'Lakes, Ridgewood, River Ridge and Wesley Chapel will travel to Dunedin for the Class 2A-District 5 meet; and Sunlake will host the Class 1A-District 6 tournament, which includes Gulf, Hudson, Pasco, Wiregrass and Zephyrhills.
1. Gulf, 382; 2. River Ridge, 252; 3. Wiregrass, 222; 4. Mitchell and Sunlake, 203; 6. Land O' Lakes, 170; 7. Pasco, 131; 8. Zephyrhills, 76; 9. Wesley Chapel, 74; 10. Hudson, 67; 11. Ridgewood, 62.
103- Carpenter (G) p. VanDam (Z) 1:58; 112- O'Connor (G) maj. dec. McKay (L) 15-7; 119- Ayers (G) maj. dec. Hynes (Z) 9-0; 125- Engle (L) dec. Isom (G) 8-6; 130- Madden (WG) dec. Califiore (G) 8-4; 135- Peterson (S) dec. Centanni (G) 6-0; 140- Kostakis (M) p. Stack (L) 1:26; 145- Hitchcock (RR) dec. Hicks (P) 16-15; 152- Jackson (G) maj. dec. Vanatta (RR) 5-3; 160- Morales (WG) p. Johnson (S) 5:00; 171- Horning (RR) dec. Ritter (G) 6-5; 189- Baker (S) p. Gallagher (G) 1:40; 215- Brosnan (M) dec. Whittington (S) 11-9; 285- Bernardi (RR) dec. Coss (G) 11-9.