BRADENTON -- Caleb Rudisill had never wrestled anywhere like The Lakeland Center before the 2014 Class 3A state tournament.
The 30-year-old arena seats more than 8,100 spectators and, even though there weren't that many packed into the bleachers for the state wrestling tournament, the spectacle was enough to seep into Rudisill's brain.
After the Manatee sophomore breezed to a win by technical fall in his first match, he was poised to make a run. But then he ran into Miami Braddock's Nicholas Villamil, a name that shouldn't have meant much to him but did. Rudisill lost to Villamil early during his freshman year and, even at the 2014 state tournament, more than a year later, that memory was enough to throw him off.
"Even though I made all of the improvements, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, he beat me before,'" Rudisill said.
Rudisill had an early lead before Villamil got him off the mat for a five-point move. Rudisill calls it lucky. Either way, it was the decisive moment of the match and ended the region champion's state tournament run in the quarterfinals with a narrow 6-4 loss.
"After that I just folded," Rudisill said. "I just broke mentally, couldn't come back."
On Friday at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Rudisill will have his chance at redemption and a spot on the medal stand at the 2015 state tournament. The junior tore through Kissimmee last weekend on the way to a region championship, and this weekend he is among the favorites to turn that into a state title. He is seeded third in the 126-pound bracket.
Five other Manatee wrestlers will join Rudisill at state this weekend, including fellow region champ Jesse Fulk (182 pounds). Marshall Craig (106), Charles Small (132) Matt McAleer (145) and Timothy Dinsdale (152) are the other Hurricanes making the trip.
The diagnosis on Rudisill's collapse from head coach Andrew Gugliemini is twofold. First was a simple lack of experience. It's rare, Gugliemini insists, for a wrestler to win a championship during his first trip to state. The second was part of his personality: Rudisill wasn't mean -- at all.
"He's a good boy," Gugliemini said. "He's meaner. I don't know if he's mean enough. We'll see."
It all makes sense for the son of a pastor. Rudisill's father, David, has been the pastor at WestCoast Church in Parrish since 2005. Rudisill even came to wrestling through church when his father got a flier advertising classes when Caleb was 6 years old. He immediately grew to love the sport and his more than 10 years of experience have made the 17-year-old one of Manatee's most technically gifted wrestlers.
So what he needed wasn't an overhaul of skill, but a lesson in confidence and poise. The Hurricanes spent the offseason sending some of their top wrestlers, including Rudisill, to tournaments and camps all across the eastern part of the United States. Rudisill was a counselor at one of the top wrestling camps in Ohio and competed at the southeast regional championship in Atlanta. He's no longer a stranger to expansive arenas and, in a niche sport like wrestling, there's no substitute for that type of experience.
"If he shows a little toughness and doesn't break down mentally a little bit, and doesn't let those thoughts and fears get in then he'll be fine," Gugliemini said. "There's kids that placed ahead of him last year that no doubt he was a better wrestler than. But that's the process."
For Rudisill, the process was momentarily halted after the 2014 state championship. He was depressed for the next month after falling short at state until David Mason, an assistant coach for the Canes and two-time state champion at Bloomingdale during the early 2000s, got him back to work.
Rudisill focused on bulking up as he grew two inches and moved up a pair of weight classes from 113 to 126. More important, though, were the tournaments that Mason placed him in and the words of advice he could offer as a former champion.
"We knew that he would have to have some exposure at the state tournament before he could win," Mason said. "That's what he did last year, and we're in the same position this year with an opportunity to not only place at the state tournament but compete for a state title."
An extra year has also granted Rudisill just a bit more perspective. In 2014, a state championship felt like the only thing in the world that mattered to Rudisill. Now he realizes that it's just a high school wrestling tournament and even if he does come up short he'll have one more shot at it as a senior in 2016.
But after what he went through last season, grabbing a state title would be a sweet way to finish a tumultuous year.
"It was definitely a good experience even though it sucked," Rudisill said. "It just can't get any worse than that. I just can't put that much pressure on myself."