Last season, Tommy Barker received his first taste of the state wrestling meet. Only a few weeks into a new campaign, the Springstead sophomore hungers for a larger bite. Over his team’s first two tournaments, Barker has compiled a 12-0 mark with seven pins. Two Saturdays ago, he was the county’s lone champion at the 34th annual Kiwanis Invitational held at Hernando High.
“I feel pretty good. I kind of wanted to pin the kid in the finals, but I did pretty well,” Barker said after Kiwanis. “I’ve gotten a lot better on my takedowns since last year, so that’s helped. I’m not giving up takedowns at the beginning of matches. I started ahead in every one of my matches.
“It’s just building up to states, really. That’s the whole goal for this season.” He achieved the goal of at least making it that far in his first go-round on the prep circuit. He qualified for the Class 2A FHSAA Finals at 106 pounds after winning a district title and placing third in regionals. At states, he went 1-2 and finished the season with a record of 41-18.
“Throughout the season, I thought I did pretty well. I lost to some kids that I shouldn’t have, that I feel like I’ve gotten redemption against most of them,” Barker said. “I did not live up to my potential at states, and that’s going to change this year.
“I was very nervous because I had never had that kind of experience before. Wrestling in states as a freshman, I was very nervous. But now that I have experience with that, I think I’m going to come in a lot more confident this year.”
Barker admitted it was tough to deal with the pressure of performing at states, even though he’s far from a novice on the mat. He’s wrestled with the Spring Hill Wrestling Club since first grade, following his father who wrestled as a youth in New Jersey. “I love it. Lots of my best friends do it. My teammates are my best friends,” Barker said. “I came in as a freshman, I was starting varsity on a team that our goal last year was to take first place as a team at states. I was supposed to help contribute to that. While we didn’t live up exactly to our expectations, we were one of the very best teams in the state and I was just so glad to be a part of it as a freshman.
“The experience of all those older guys that graduated last year, being on the team with them, they made me so much better. They allowed me to do such great things last season.”
Expectations are always high for the Eagles, who are in a bit of a transitional phase after collecting three straight state crowns from 2011-13. However, with a fairly young roster and a new head coach in Mike LaRocca, Springstead finds itself searching for respect.
LaRocca, a former Eagle wrestler who has been coaching within the program for several years, considered it a slap in the face that his squad couldn’t crack the top 20 in the state rankings despite its established record of success.
A third-place showing at Kiwanis and a team title his past Saturday at the Bulldog Brawl in St. Cloud has provided evidence that Springstead isn’t ready to fade into the background, and Barker has been pivotal thus far with his victories at 106.
“Barker wrestled really well,” LaRocca said at Kiwanis. “On top, he’s phenomenal. Still trying to work his defense on his feet, get him going a little bit more on his feet. If he gets his feet game going, he’s unstoppable.
“There’s a few more things I want to see from him, but overall really good. I want to see him in a couple tougher matches and we’ll judge him. He had a tough two matches. Semis was a tough match, finals was a tough match, but other than that he didn’t really get pushed.”
LaRocca also believes Barker can draw individual motivation from the state rankings. “I think he can take a state title,” LaRocca said. “I think he was disrespected by the state this year. He was ranked lower than two kids that he’s already beaten. He’s ranked below a freshman ninth-grader from Brandon that’s really not vetted in the area. I understand Brandon puts out (high) caliber kids, but to rank a kid above a vetted kid is kind of a disrespect factor.”
“We had a lot of seniors graduate last year, and everybody is talking down about us, saying ‘Oh, Springstead’s not what they used to be. They’re not even the best county team anymore,’ and that’s just not true,” Barker said. “Just cause we don’t have the same guys doesn’t mean we’re not as good. We’re stepping it up and replacing those guys.”
Regardless of what those on the outside may think, Barker envisions himself at the top of the awards podium at states this season – and the next two after that before moving on to wrestle in college. “I expect to win states this year. I don’t expect anybody to stand in my way,” Barker said. “I think I’ve prepared enough and I’ve become good enough and I’ve improved enough to be the state champ this year.”