GREEN COVE SPRINGS – With a smile and a wink on Fri., June 22, North Florida Wrestling Academy coach P.J. Cobbert emits a look of confidence on the final day of practice before traveling to …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – With a smile and a wink on Fri., June 22, North Florida Wrestling Academy coach P.J. Cobbert emits a look of confidence on the final day of practice before traveling to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports arena for the 2018 AAU Scholastic Duals national championship of wrestling on Sat., June 23 for five days of grinding against the best wrestlers in America.
“We are not going down with a team of power wrestlers like we did last year, but last year, we didn’t go down thinking we would get second in the nation either,” said Cobbert, referring to the Academy’s second play finish in the big-school Community I division after a tough 43-30 loss to Rhino Wrestling Club of Pennsylania in the championship match. “We just went down and grinded and almost came home with a national title. I really don’t know yet what we have here because we are so young. Because of last year’s finish, we will be in a tough pool.”
Cobbert will be traveling to Disney with yet a second consecutive Class 3A trophy after chasing down powerhouse South Dade High.
“The program keeps feeding itself knowing that our formula of conditioning, training and technique is working,” said Cobbert. “Kids come here knowing the competitive level we strive for and that has made the program grow more and more. Great wrestlers make great wrestlers better when they practice against each other everyday.”
Cobbert is confident in his young squad with a handful of veterans returning and two state champions; 3A-113 champion Briar Jackson of Cobbert’s Fleming Island High team that finished second overall to powerhouse South Dade High, and 1A-138 champion Peyton Hughes of Clay who also finished second in team points behind perennial powerhouse Lake Highland Prep.
For the 2018 Academy team, Cobbert loses three unbeaten All-Americans from last year’s team; Class 3A state champions Ryan Smenda and Paul Detwiler to college and 2017 Class 3A champion Jason Davis, now a sophomore wrestler at Southeastern University.
“Adding Hughes to the roster will help with the experience level of the team because we are very young this year,” said Jackson, the Class 3A champion at 113 with an explosive 47 second pin and 10-1 record at last year’s nationals. “He adds a lot of championship level preparation both before the matches and during the week.”
Returning to the Academy lineup from last year are Trace Insalaco, Luke Chop, Tyler Williams, Jaquan English, Anthony Breeden and Jose Concepcion. Lou Gagliardo, third at 106 for Fleming Island, will also bring championship credentials to the lineup with his coming from Clay last year to join the Golden Eagles. Gagliardo has two third place finishes in Class 1A for Clay.
“Williams is the most seasoned young guy we got out there because he went to the big dance this year (state qualifier),” said Cobbert. “The young guys have the advantage of having to wrestle under last year’s team for the past two years.”
In the small school Community II national lineup last year, NFWA fielded a B team that lost in the silver division championship with three bracket wins before falling in the final. NFWA is set to compete in three different divisions in 2018. Most of those wrestlers were part of the 2018 Junior Varsity State champ team under coaches Kurt Lear and Randy West.
“We keep growing and I want to expose these young guys to the rigors of this type of wrestling,” said Cobbert. “A big arena, lots of whistles and great wrestling is tough sometimes to absorb on the first go-round.”
Hughes has been training with NFWA group and will add his fluid, attacking style to the lineup with his most accomplished year at Clay landing him two wins over two-time state champion Noah Castillo of 1A champions Lake Highland Prep and eventually a state title.
“Training here gives me a good place to workout, great practice partners; bunch of reasons,” said Hughes. “Here, there is a forced pace that is pushed. I’ve been rolling with Jaquan (English, fourth in 3A).”
Jackson, without his state champ teammates Detwiler, who was at the final practice at the NFWA warehouse in Green Cove Springs adding his encouragement to the young team, and Smenda, now at Wake Forest University on a football scholarship, becomes the outright vocal leader for Cobbert in the hot summer training sessions.
“Disney can make or break a guy,” said Jackson, who lost four matches in his championship season, but still pushed to the title. “Look at Smenda, he won one match his first time at Disney and then dominated from there with an unbeaten tournament and a state title. These young guys will have to decide how they will respond when things get tough down there. You can’t quit at Disney.”
Jackson liked Williams as a top candidate to lead the team, plus young guys that included Hunter Herrington, Ryan Hobson and Jeffrey Loscano.
“Some of these guys will be under the radar when they get there and that’s an advantage,” said Jackson. “Our add-on guys from Nease High; sophomore brothers Brady and Tanner Hill (47-9, 2A state qualifier 152, third in region 1-2A) and sophomore brothers Gannon (33-9, 2A regions) and Nick Janssen (27-21, 2A regions), will add some power to the lineup.”