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Lunsford the right Tiger for first impression

Right now, Grant Lunsford has plenty to think about.

Walking into the cavernous Lakeland Center for the first time. Thinking about his first-round opponent. Putting a lid on those butterflies fluttering inside his stomach.

But give him some time, and the significance of what he has accomplished will hit him.

Lunsford will make history this morning when he becomes the first Palmetto wrestler to compete in the state tournament, which begins 10 a.m. in Lakeland.

He’s a sophomore, 145 pounds. And he’s also a fighter — a prerequisite for any trailblazer.

This time last year, Lunsford was out of commission, his shoulder having just been sliced open to repair some torn ligaments, and his fractured femur on the mend.

Not exactly a normal set of nicks and pings.

Wrestling is a 12-month grind. But as the summer rolled around, and his teammates began getting into shape, all Lunsford could do was heal and hope for the best.

He couldn’t run. He couldn’t condition. He as out static for six months while the rest of the team began getting their bodies in shape.

So when Lunsford came back, he double-timed it. He’d practice after school with the rest of the Tigers, and then head home and run five miles, all while keeping a close eye on his diet and trimming weight.

Slowly, everything started coming together. Lunsford finished second in the district tournament. Then last Saturday in Fort Myers, he finished fourth in the Class 1A-Region 3 tournament.

Lunsford was off to The Lakeland Center. He was off to history.

“It was indescribable,” he said. “I was just so happy.

“Very proud, and my family was proud, as well.”

It’s been a wonderful winter for Manatee County sports, with the ascent of Palmetto and Saint Stephen’s boys soccer, the re-emergence of Southeast girls basketball and the 14 wrestlers reporting for duty this morning in Lakeland.

The common thread running through such success is perseverance. And Lunsford personifies that.

This is someone who was so banged up last year he didn’t make it past the first round of the district tournament. Someone who couldn’t train for six months. Someone who wasn’t supposed to be on his way to central Florida Thursday night.

But he is. And he won’t be alone.

Palmetto’s coaches will be there, as will most of the Tigers.

“The whole team’s behind me,” he said.

And regardless of the result, Lunsford will never consider this season a negative.

“I just want to see what happens and do my best,” he said. “Some of the best wrestlers will be there, so I want to learn from them.”

In the meantime, others could learn a little from him.

John Lembo, prep sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2097.