SEBRING - Wrestling in the Lakeland Center is the crowning achievement for most of Florida's high school grapplers. But for Avon Park and Sebring, it's a rite of passage.
The Red Devils and Blue Streaks are perennial contenders at the state wrestling finals, and today in Lakeland, they each bring two grapplers to the season's final weekend.
Class 1A-Region 3 champions Delroy Blake and Dre Neely make their triumphant return to the hallowed arena, as both Red Devils finished in the top five last season.
Meanwhile, Sebring advanced Casey Ricker and Luis Sanchez thanks to two top-four finishes in the Class 2A-Region 3 meet.
"I think they're both ready," said Avon Park coach Blake Germaine. "Delroy placed fourth last year and Dre finished fifth. They both know what's in front of them. They'll be ready to go."
Sebring coach Josh Miller issued similar sentiments about his wrestlers.
"We've got a tough draw," Miller said. "But we've got a good shot to reach the podium with both of our guys if they wrestle the right way."
Blake will face Hudson High School's Drake Carson (6-4) in the opening round of the 195-pound bracket. Should he win, he'll likely wrestle one of the state's top grapplers: Dunnellon's Cole Fagan, who is an impressive 43-1.
But Blake isn't worried.
"Delroy is zoned in," the Red Devils coach said. "He's kept his weight down, he's had great practice all week, and he's focused. This is the most honed-in I've ever seen him."
Competing in the 113 class, Neely faces Rockledge's Jacob Demming (25-5) in the opening round. If Neely advances, he'll grapple with Brandon's Jason Griffis, who comes from one of the state's most decorated wrestling programs.
"He shouldn't be overwhelmed or intimidated," Blake said. "It's a tough bracket, but he knows how to wrestle. IF he does it like he has all year, he'll be fine."
Blake added that sending both guys to the finals would be ideal, but that he'd be pleased with each making the podium.
"The goal is for both to reach the finals," he said. "But two podium finishes would be great. And a state championship out of the deal would be even better."
Sebring's Ricker faces similar challenges in the 170 bracket. He'll open with Choctawhatchee's Shamar Johnson (39-4). If he advances, Brandon's Dontae Mcgee (54-0) could be looming in the later rounds.
"It helps that having the No. 1 guy in the state is on the other side of the bracket," Miller said, referring to Mcgee. "But even with that, Casey still has a lot of tough competition."
Sanchez will grapple with Sebastian Rivers' Zach Finnegan (28-3) in the 285 bracket. Luckily for him, he won't have any run-ins with an opponent from Brandon.
But Miller has been quick to counter that at this late date in the season, everyone is talented.
"There's no shortcuts," Miller said. "That's expected at the state level. And if he wins his first round, he'll probably face the No. 1 guy in that weight class (Austin Underwood, Jesuit, 31-0). But he can wrestle with the best of them. He's excited and ready to get after it."
Winning the first two matches in the state finals is crucial. The victor is automatically guaranteed a spot at the podium if he reaches the semifinals. The top six grapplers from each weight class also medal.
One loss sends grapplers into "wrestlebacks," which is similar to the loser's bracket. It's difficult to break the top six from that position. Two losses eliminate grapplers from the finals.