High School Sports

State wrestling preview | Palmetto's Leonel Barboza wins style points to get first berth

PALMETTO -- Last winter, Palmetto wrestler Leonel Barboza claimed district gold before exiting the region tournament just shy of a state berth.

Ever hungry to make another run at reaching state, Barboza spent last summer wrestling as many high-level tournaments as he could.

When the 2014-15 high school wrestling season began for the Palmetto junior, he used improved technical skills to craft a 41-7 record.

He'll take his unorthodox style, which has baffled opponents all year, to Kissimmee's Silver Spurs Arena for the Florida High School Athletic Association's Class 2A state wrestling tournament Friday and Saturday.

"He basically wrestles a style that he picked it up on his own," Palmetto head coach Bryan Wilkes said. "It's basically a European style, the Russian style. Staying in good position, waiting for other people to make mistakes. And then when he wants to attack, it's very explosive. So he kind of lulls people to sleep."

Barboza, who wrestles in the 152-pound weight class, repeated as a district champion this year. But he added a region championship to his resume as the Tigers earned two individual crowns at region for the first time in the program's 10-year history. Chase Washington, who wrestles in the 138-pound division, was Palmetto's other region champ.

"He has a year more experience than me; he's a senior this year," Barboza said of Washington. "So he really pushes me. I've learned a lot from him. He's wrestled longer. ... I learned how to stop fast people from shooting and stuff. He's really quick

and good on his feet, so he made me a better wrestler on my feet."

Having another state-caliber wrestler in the gym has improved Barboza's own skills, too.

The two have sparred throughout the season in preparation for this week's final hurdle: getting onto the podium and potentially claiming the first state championship in the wrestling program's history.

"This is the first time we have ever walked into the tournament thinking, 'Hey, we could have a state champion,'" Wilkes said. "Him or Chase and I don't know which I like better. ... But they should both place."

But to win the state title, Barboza will have to win four consecutive matches, which could include a date in the semifinals against Brandon's Troy Joyce (65-1), who is the No. 1 wrestler in the state for the 152s, according to Scout.com's rankings.

"In that weight class, anybody can beat anyone," Wilkes said. "It's all one- and two-point matches, every match."

But unafraid of any opponent, Barboza is entering his first state meet with confidence.

In the region championship match last week in Punta Gorda, Barboza said he didn't wrestle his best match.

Yet, he won.

Going into that event, he added a red stripe to his black hair to represent Palmetto's school colors.

He's keeping the hairdo, which has gained interest from fellow students.

"In the hallways, everybody's always like, 'Oh, what is that for?'" Barboza said. "They don't understand, because it's wrestling."

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