Moments after winning an 18-6 superior decision over Crossland's Lomax Roberson last week, Chris Toth lay sprawled on a warm-up mat behind the Largo bench, taking long sips from a water bottle and trying to catch his breath.
Besides wrestling in the 132-pound class, six pounds heavier than his natural weight, Toth was taxed by having the match go the distance, something he hadn't done all season. But by the time the tournaments roll around in late February, going against bigger competition will have paid off, said Toth.
"Giving up the extra weight, wrestling stronger people, it's a disadvantage," said Toth, who was 15-1 going into last night's match with Laurel. His basic strategy is "trying to avoid strength, and working more with my moves, so it saves my strength."
Toth is one of a three wrestlers who have helped the Lions remain undefeated at 6-0-1, and rekindled interest in a team that for many years was one of the elite wrestling squads in the state.
Four or five years ago Largo had wrestlers and other athletes fed to it by neighboring junior high schools and boys clubs. But budget cuts, which resulted in dropping junior high sports in 1979, have made Largo recruit talent by word of mouth.
Then, three years ago, Coach Richard Julian was not retained by the county. Interest in the sport decreased.
That was the problem that faced Julian's replacement, David Kawata. In Kawata's first campaign, the Lions went 9-3 thanks to wrestlers left over from the Julian era. But last year, in his second season, Kawata had problems fielding a full squad and the Lions finished 6-7, their only losing record in eight years.
"Last year we lost some (individual) matches by forfeit, but won the others on the mat," Kawata said. "We may have lost some respect, but they didn't take us lightly, either. They knew that we beat them on the mat, and they also knew that we were a strong tournament team."
Last year Largo took third place in the county tournament, finished in the top three in the regionals and sent two wrestlers to the state tournament.
Those two -- Toth, who placed third in the state, and Gary Heldt (185), who took fourth -- along with sophomore Randy Grant (112) are the heart of this year's squad.
"We had to do some rebuilding, but we had a good nucleus to work with, which helps," Kawata said, noting that the trio's experience is rubbing off on the newer members. And this season, he even has enough wrestlers to field a junior varsity team.
For Toth, a senior, winning means taking advantage of what is given to him during a match. It might also mean going to a finesse game, in light of the heavier opponents.
"I try to change moves. If I see an opportunity for a different move, I'll use it, unless they give it to me," Toth said. "I have to look at others and just take what they give to me."
Heldt, another senior who last year won the county tournament in his weight class, was 10-1 this season through last weekend. His only loss was to Jaime Beghtol of Laurel, "the only guy I haven't pinned this year."
Heldt also learned his skills from another champion wrestler, Craig Whittaker, an assistant wrestling coach at Parkdale. According to Heldt, Whittaker did the things that Kawata couldn't -- practice the moves that Kawata preaches.
"Whittaker helped me a lot teaching me all those moves, pounding on me and making me learn the hard way," Heldt said. "Kawata was telling me what to do and Craig was showing me."
Grant's older brother, Eric, was also a standout when he was at Largo and he has passed his knowledge on to his younger brother.
"I'm just somebody who has a goal to reach," Grant said. "I'm just going to keep wrestling until I reach that goal."