Brandon High School had just pummeled the competition Saturday at the Coach Kelly Memorial Hurricane Team Challenge, so Manatee coach Andrew Gugliemini was going to defer to the Eagles’ head coach Russ Kozart for the post-tournament awards.
“Who do you have for lightweight?” Gugliemini asked.
“Oh, I think your kid,” Kozart said. Marshall Craig, Manatee’s 120-pounder, breezed through the two days of competition for the third-place Canes, but so had a handful of wrestlers. Kozart’s acknowledgement was noteworthy.
“When it comes out of his brain and then Coach (Sean) Ballard from Palm Bay, when those guys say it of course I’m going to agree with them,” Gugliemini said. “It’s a big honor when they feel like you’re the best kid in the whole gymnasium.”
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Craig’s Most Outstanding Lightweight award was the biggest honor of a slightly humbling weekend at The Mildred Emmelhainz Gymnasium for the Hurricanes. They settled for third place as Brandon cruised to the top spot with an 8-0 record and Dover Strawberry Crest topped Manatee in a dual match to seal the No. 2 spot at 7-1.
The Hurricanes finished 6-2 and beat Tampa Plant, 55-24, in the third-place match at their annual tournament.
The Canes began their tournament with five straight wins, including four by at least 20 points, until they met Brandon. The victories were limited for Manatee, but Craig dominated Brandon’s Easton Tobia by 13 points.
“It’s good wrestling, good competition, obviously. It gets you better,” Craig said. “Wrestling Brandon, that’s always a good dual, it’s always fun. There’s always at least a solid kid coming out on the mat with you.”
The performance helped him achieve a goal he set as a freshman: Craig wanted to go undefeated at this tournament and win an outstanding wrestler award. He lost three matches as a freshman, two as a sophomore and one as a junior. All three years, the Most Outstanding Lightweight honor went to someone else.
He has bigger goals in mind after winning a Class 3A bronze medal last season. With more than a month left in the regular season, though, breezing through a difficult field with five pins set a strong benchmark.
“That was one of my big goals this weekend,” Craig said. “I’ve gotten better each year, trying to get that undefeated record here.”
It was also a show of progress for a wrestler who should contend for a 3A championship at 120 pounds. Craig was the Canes’ top finisher at the state championship last year and entered the season as Manatee’s most likely contender to get back to the top of the podium.
“I’m a lot more confidence in my offensive stuff,” Craig said. “It’s like more confidence going out on the mat, going out and knowing that I’m one of the top competitors, and just trying to separate myself from everybody.”