Down the hallway behind Charlotte High’s auxiliary gym hang three banners celebrating the Tarpons’ trio of state championship wrestling teams.
Just beyond those banners are double doors leading to a room where a team is putting in all the necessary work to hang a banner of its own. The good news is many of the wrestlers pictured on the newest banner are also in that room.
“Try to repeat, that is it. I guess that’s the only thing,” Tarpons wrestling coach Evan Robinson said this week. “Can we defend? I don’t know. Do we have the necessary tools? Yes, we do.
“Will all those tools work by the end of the season? I have no idea,” Robinson continued. “They’re kids. Things happen. Injuries, life. As of right now, we’re headed in the right direction.”
Notably absent from last year’s state championship team are individual champions Cody Rice and five-time champion, Lucas Willis. But winning the Class 2A crown a year ago involved much more than their titles.
The Tarpons sent 10 wrestlers to the state championships and seven found their way to the podium. Austin became a two-time state champion that weekend, Isaac Church finished second, Patrick Nolan wrestled all the way back to a third-place finish and roster bookends Camren French at 106 and Nate Box at heavyweight, provided the fifth- and fourth-place points to Charlotte’s total.
Everyone’s points were key to putting Rice and Willis in position to put Charlotte over the top in the final matches.
“I lost to a kid I was supposed to beat at States and that was heartbreaking,” Nolan said. “I thought I was just going to go out there and lose my next match. I didn’t even care anymore, but then after I started winning and pinning everybody, I started scoring a lot of team points and that gave me a lot of confidence and I ended up being one of the key reasons we won, so it was really a magical moment.”
Seniors Austin, Church and Nolan return this season, as well as French, Box and a host of other Tarpons with deep wells of experience. Last year’s success – the way it happened – has forged a strong, team-first mentality.
“You get knocked out of gold, you fight back and take third,” Church said. “You can’t take third because you get knocked out, you fight back and take sixth. Our main goal is place as high as you can and get as many team points as possible.
“The individual title is good, but you win a state title with a whole group of guys you work out with every day? That’s much more fulfilling,” Church added. “I did it all by myself? Nah, me and my team.”
Many Tarpons are moving up a weight class. Nolan will move up from 113 to 120 while Church goes to 138 from 132. French is staying at 106 and Austin remains at 126. Box lost weight with an offseason of conditioning and will compete at 220.
Derek Paull (132), James Baltutis (145), Garrett Luce (152) and Cael Newton (182) have another year under their belt and big things are expected of Kaiden Ballinger (113), who had a huge offseason.
“Kaiden has jumped back in there and done a lot of work in the offseason,” Robinson said. “James, I’m expecting big things out of him this year. I think it’s time for him to move up a level.”
When he looks around the wrestling room, Austin said the talent is there, but it’s the intangibles – such as determination, work ethic and the desire to prove the Tarpons are not a flash in the pan – that will put Charlotte in position to repeat.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulders, something to prove this year,” he said. “I think last year we had a lot of talent. I think this year, it’s just hard work and grit. We’re going to out-work everybody.
“Cody and Lucas were big losses, but that’s just bringing us together because we know we can’t depend on them,” Austin added. “Our big guys are going to step up and I think our guys who didn’t show out last year, our quieter guys, are going to make a big impact this year.”
Robinson has crafted a schedule that will definitely reward hard work.
The season begins with the traditional visit to the Gary Freis Duals in Fort Myers. A deep Captain Archer field will include Brandon this season. Over the break, Charlotte will return to the Osceola Knockouts, then after the new year, the state duals series begins. With the juggling of districts and regions, Charlotte will likely face Jesuit in the region quarterfinals.
“That’s way early,” Robinson said. “That’s 1-2 right now in the rankings and meeting in the quarters.”
Mixed in with the dual series is a trip to the star-studded Jensen Cradle Cancer tourney and just after state duals, the Tarpons play host to the Gene Gorman Showcase. It will all culminate in the Lake Gibson IBTs during the first week of February.
“A lot of people are going to have a big match against a Lake Gibson kid at State, so it’s good to get to know how we match up with them,” Nolan said. We always have one of the harder schedules in 2A – I mean, Lucas never had an undefeated season. That’s how hard our schedules have been.”
So by design, Charlotte should head into the postseason bruised and calloused.
“We’re going to put them through the ringer, so when we get to the district and regionals, it feels like a kids’ tournament,” Robinson said. “That’s why we put them through the ringer.”
Austin, angling for a number of in-season and postseason goals, is eager for the challenge.
“I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been, so my goal is to have the most dominant season in Florida high school wrestling history,” he said. “I’m coming. I’m dominating. I’m going to be the first four-time Captain Archer champ from our school.
“I’ve got little goals throughout the season, so I’m going to focus in on one match at a time this year and just straight domination,” he continued. “I’m still all-in on that state title. Nothing’s stopping me from that, but I have the little goals to keep me grinding until March. I’m going to peak in March. You’ll see the best me in March.”