Frank Pettineo certainly expected a tight race as Cardinal Gibbons sought to hold off Lake Highland Prep’s challenge to the state Class 1A wrestling crown.
This tight, though? The first day hardly could have brought less separation.
When Friday’s night session finally concluded at Silver Spurs Arena, the Chiefs held the top spot — but by a mere half-point, as the rivals pulled away from the rest of the division.
With Alex Lopouchanski, Nino Sannasardo and Erich Byelick keeping their unbeaten records intact, the Chiefs sent seven wrestlers to the semifinals to finish the day with 77 points. But Lake Highland Prep also placed seven in the semis, reaching the midway point at 761/2.
Pasco High was a distant third with 571/2 points.
“It’s exactly where we thought we’d be going with it,” said Pettineo, seeking to bring Cardinal Gibbons its third state title in the past five years. Lake Highland Prep has won the other two titles.
“We’re doing OK. [Saturday] will be the day — who gets more in [to the finals] and who can stay alive. … It’s going to be a two-horse race, and the lead is going to change probably five times.”
Oddly enough, the Chiefs and Highlanders will largely avoid each other Saturday. Lake Highland Prep placed most of its semifinalists in the lower weights, while Cardinal Gibbons ruled the upper divisions.
The result very well could hinge on their two head-to-head semifinals. Lopouchanski will put his 55-0 record on the line against Elijah Cleary (58-1) in the 160-pound division, and Diego Bell (53-2) takes on Lake Highland Prep freshman Ben Goldin (45-11) at 195 pounds.
“It could be an eight- to 10-point swing either way,” Pettineo said.
Somerset Academy’s Raekwon Reggler stayed alive for back-to-back state titles at 182 pounds, helping the Panthers finish the first night in eighth place.
Reggler lost to Sannasardo in the waning moments of last week’s regional final, and they could meet again with the state crown on the line.
“He lost, but it made him better, and he knows it,” Somerset coach Joe Blasucci said. “I expect to see a little bit different result this time. I know he wants it. He told me he’s not losing this again.”
Frank Talshahar, a seventh-grader who just turned 13, also will represent Somerset in the semifinals at 113 pounds. American Heritage also sent two wrestlers to the semis — Dominick Venturi at 145 pounds and Bradley Clement at 220 pounds.
The night’s most dramatic finish belonged to Archbishop McCarthy’s Jake Gillis, who found himself moments from seeing his unbeaten season come to an end in the Class 2A semifinals before a reversal with three seconds left gave him an 8-7 triumph at 145 pounds over Lake Gibson’s Nick Ruiz.
Ruiz had taken a 7-6 lead with a reversal of his own with 1:18 left and appeared to have control as the clock ticked under 15 seconds. But with coaches and teammates screaming out the dwindling time, Gillis found an opening to twist himself atop Ruiz.
“I knew that if I stopped moving, it was over,” said Gillis, now 53-0 on the season. “I just had to keep going crazy. Don’t stop moving and something was going to open up — and it did.”
In the Class 3A competition, St. Thomas ended the night in ninth, and the Raiders sent two wrestlers to the semifinals.
Grant Aronoff ran his record to 46-0 as he reached the 138-pound semis, where he faces an all-Broward match against Cypress Bay’s Tyler Sage. Both are reigning regional champions — Aronoff in Region 3 and Sage in Region 4.
Richard Desir-Jones is the Raiders’ other semifinalist, winning both of his matches at 285 pounds.
▪ Class 1A team standings — 1. Cardinal Gibbons 77.0, 2. Lake Highland Prep 76.5, 3. Pasco 57.5, 4. Tampa Prep 42.5, 5. Arnold 40.5, 6. American Heritage 35.5, 7. Nature Coast 29.0, 8. Somerset Academy 28.5, 9. Indian Rocks Christian 27.0, 10. Clay 22.5, 11. Wakulla 22.0, 12. Admiral Farragut 20.0, 12. South Walton 20.0, 14. Astronaut 19.5, 15. Dunedin 19.0, 15. Key West 19.0, 17. Keys Gate 18.0, 18. Suwannee 16.0, 19. American Heritage School 15.0, 19. Monsignor Pace 15.0, 21. Weeki Wachee 14.0, 22. Clewiston 13.0, 22. Evangelical Christian 13.0, 24. Mariner 11.0, 24. Space Coast 11.0, 26. Coral Shores 10.5, 26. Satellite 10.5, 28. Crystal River 10.0, 28. Southeast 10.0, 30. Anclote 9.5.