By Andy Warrener
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Wesley Chapel wrestler Tony Ruggiero claimed a bit of school history in his final high school match.
The 120-pound senior not only became the first in program’s 14-year history to make a state title match, Ruggiero went out claiming the Class 1A championship.
Ruggiero finishes the season 42-5, with one of the losses coming to eventual 3A state champion Jared Prince of Palm Harbor.
The 5-foot-9 Ruggiero stood taller than most of those he faced this season. He said he grew seven inches since his freshman year, which didn’t compromise his balance acquired while participating in gymnastics when he was younger.
“(Ruggiero) is so hard to get on his back, he’s like a cat,” said first-year Wildcats coach Jeff Beson. “He’s got such good hips. He could be upside down and still in control.”
Ruggiero made regionals as a freshman. A knee injury limited him as a sophomore, but he improved enough to finish sixth in the state last season.
He hadn’t planned on altering his technique or training entering his senior year. Beson and assistant William Zeranski, a Wesley Chapel graduate, had other plans.
“At the beginning of the year, I didn’t want to change anything,” Ruggiero said. “Then coach Beson (and Zeranski) got me learning new moves I could use with my length.”
He picked up new moves like the dump, where a wrestler lifts his opponent’s thigh to throw them to the ground.
Ruggiero is a relative newcomer to wrestling. He was introduced to the sport in eighth grade by former teammate Nick Popolillo, who graduated last year.
Beson said Ruggiero’s tenacity makes him a natural.
“He always had that fighting spirit,” Beson said. “It’s been his calling card.”
The Wildcats have had several coaches during Ruggiero’s four years. Brian Simmons had two stints as their leader but an active commitment to the Army Reserves kept him in and out of the gym and unable to commit long-term. Beson, also an Army Reservist, had commitments of his own, but he decided to step in anyway.
“It was a blessing that he stepped up,” Ruggiero said.
Ruggiero faced several difficult opponents at states.
After a tech pin in his first round match, Ruggiero drew top-10 ranked Troy Reed of Fivay. Ruggiero escaped with an 8-6 victory in what he called his toughest match of the tournament.
He beat Vic Blasucci of Somerset 10-7 to advance to the title match against Doral Academy’s Chris Moren.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared,” Ruggiero said. “I’d always been in the bleachers at this point. Now I was walking in as a finalist.”
The culmination of years of hard work and cutting weight were on the line as Ruggiero was introduced.
Ruggiero took the mat and defeated Moreno 6-5.
“(Being on the podium) was the best feeling ever,” Ruggiero said. “I never minded being the underdog. … I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out. It’s cool to walk around school and people ask you about it.”