Heading into the finals of the Gulf Breeze Andrews Invitational wrestling tournament Saturday, the Gulf Breeze Dolphins had produced a more than comfortable lead.
The squad -- which took seven wrestlers to the Class 2A state championships last year -- had accumulated 157 points to surge to the top of the 16-team field.
A Dolphins' team championship seemed nearly inevitable with six Gulf Breeze athletes competing for an individual title in the finals.
But only two were able to win -- Beau Doerr, the 2011 News Journal Wrestler of the Year, and Greg Manfredi, who also made the News Journal's All-Area Team. The outcome wasn't what the Dolphins had hoped for, even though the team won the meet in dominant fashion, finishing with 170 points to beat runner-up Pace by 27.
Struggling in the finals is nothing new for the Dolphins. Of the seven wrestlers who made it to state last season, Doerr had the best finish, coming in seventh.
"For many years now, we've had a lot of wrestlers make it to state," Gulf Breeze head coach Matt Alt said. "And we haven't had the success that we hoped for."
It's something the Dolphins are working to change. That's why the squad already has traveled to four wrestling tournaments this season -- including one at Brandon High, home to the most successful wrestling team Florida with 23 state championships. The Dolphins also have competed in competitive events at LSU, Tampa and Fort Walton Beach.
"We definitely see a lot better competition this year than we did last year," said Manfredi, who won the 126-pound title in an 8-6 decision over South Walton's Cody Pickren. "And the competition is a lot deeper, too. So, instead of having to face just one or two guys on a team who are good, we've seen competition that gives us tough matches back-to-back-to-back. And that's going to make us better as we head into the postseason."
That's what Alt had in mind when he made the Dolphins' schedule.
"After we would get back from state, the guys would be like, 'What happened?' " Alt said. "So I told them, 'You know what, guys, now we're going to go out and wrestle that competition early in the season and see where we're at. We're going to identify our weaknesses and make them strengths and focus on districts, regionals and the state meet.' "
The determination to be the best showed in Manfredi's and Doerr's matches.
Manfredi went back and forth with Pickren until the final 15 seconds of the match, when Manfredi worked his opponent to the floor to score two match-winning points and bring the crowd of about 400 spectators to its feet.
Doerr had an even more dramatic performance, pinning Fultondale's Wes Smith in 4:35 for the 138-pound title.
"I feel like every single one of the guys on our team has matured greatly since last year," Doerr said. "We had six guys advance to the finals (of the Andrews Invitational) this year, and that's double what we had last year. Going to all the tournaments that we've been to, that will give us the momentum that we need as we get ready to compete again at state."
Like Doerr, Saturday's win was just another stepping stone to the ultimate goal of a high finish at state for Manfredi.
"Every day when we go into practice, we're always working for state," he said. "It's great to come out here to this tournament and win, but what we're really doing is figuring out what we need to do to get better because the ultimate goal is always state."
Pace's Steven Murray (106 pounds) and Vincent Oddo (120 pounds) won championships for the Patriots, who also are a team to watch as squads get ready for the postseason, which begins with the district tournament on Jan. 30 at Gulf Breeze. Arturo Ojedo (113 pounds) of Milton was the only other area wrestler to win a title, beating Fort Walton Beach's Alex Lovett in a 10-8 decision.