Meet the Eagles’ mat dispenser – James Spencer – 2019’s Hernando County Wrestler of the Year

James Spencer                                                                                                                                                         Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

WRESTLJNG

In four winters, rose from

4-9 to the FHSAA State Finals

By TONY CASTRO

HernandoSport.com

There’s a reason rags to riches tales are few and far between.

FHSAA 2A Region 2 Champs, Chris Morales and James Spencer. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

But recent F.W. Springstead graduate James Winfield Spencer II is living proof, they can occur, especially in wrestling.

Spencer meandered into the Springstead High School wrestling practice more out of curiosity than anything else four years ago.

These days he walks around proud. In part, to his transformation from mouse to a man thanks to life on the mats.

As a first-year grappler – with zero mat credentials – he was seeking a challenge after playing junior varsity level football as a freshman.

In the most prominent athletic program in Hernando County history, the 5-foot-9, 285-pounder was about to pen his own chapter.

The brown-tressed and blue-eyed Spencer was neither the most athletic looking nor the most physically-striking specimen who had ever walked the halls of the Mariner Boulevard campus.

But to be truthful neither are many of the first-year athletes who have ever strolled in.

The difference was Spring Hill-born and raised product drank the Kool Aid offered by SHS skipper and 1998 state qualifier Mike LaRocca.

If you bought into the work outs, the grueling practices, the arduous off-season schedule – LaRocca and his staff promised just one thing: that he’d be a better wrestler.

The only child to Springstead graduate James W. Spencer I and former Umatilla cheerleader Maggie Spencer, immersed himself with the SHS mat program.

After a humble beginning – a 4-9 freshman campaign – Spencer stuck with the process.

After two mat seasons and five IBTs (individually bracketed tournaments) under his belt, Spencer had accumulated zero gold medals and had placed in one tournament.

A lesser man could have easily quit by that juncture.

James Spencer vs Laake Weir’s Cameron Carr, Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

But across his last two seasons, Spencer’s perseverance paid off.

He ended up placing in 13-of-15 IBT events (87 percent), including going a remarkable 7-for-7 run as a senior.

During his last two seasons, he became a mat dispenser of pain.

His journey yielded two district championships, one monumental regional crown, two FHSAA State Tourney berths, and a coveted State Finals berth at heavyweight in 2019.

Though he lost to South Broward refrigerator Adolphus Taylor in the Class 2A State Finals, 5-0, Spencer proved a valuable point to all young wrestlers every where: the next James Spencer could be you.

His astonishing run to the State Finals turned heads locally.

Just one year before, Spencer come home from the Silver Spurs Arena with his tail between his legs at 0-2.

This time, he returned home as the lone Hernando County wrestler to reach the coveted State Finals.

How impressive was that performance?

Each local coach voted Spencer not just to his second All-Hernando County all-star team at heavyweight, but as the unanimous Wrestler of the Year.

Spencer finished 38-4 (91 percent) overall, highlighted by 26 pins.

James Spencer

Across 39 seasons, he’s the first SHS heavyweight grappler to be named Wrestler of the Year.

Career-wise he closed the books at 104-38 overall (73 percent), highlighted by 68 pin falls.

His four wins during regionals permitted him to become the 32nd Eagle to reach the coveted Century Club with 100+ career victories.

All this from an “unathletic” kid that began his prep career upside down at 4-9.

Area coaches heaped praise

Spencer’s rise is every coaches’ dream.

Mike LaRocca

“James came through in big matches,” explained LaRocca. “He should’ve been a state placer last year … The lights of the Silver Spurs Arena got to him … That experience, however, made a big difference coming back here this time … He didn’t pucker up … He wrestled great

“… I still think there’s more potential with James, but as he got older, he definitely bought it into what we asked.” added LaRocca.
“I thought the big thing was him not wrestling conservatively … He knew how to put it together … He could be a stubborn mule, especially when he was younger, but I‘m gonna miss him in the room.”

Dan Gigantelli

“Came away with a silver medal at states … No one else around here was better,” identified Weeki Wachee’s former mentor Dan Gigantelli, before he departed to become the next head coach at Hudson-Fivay. “Getting to the state finals is a small club … He had a heck of a season … This honor sends the correct signal … When you do things the right way, you’ll get rewarded.“

Chance Phillips

“James Spencer embodies what we sell … That anybody walking into the program off the street could – with hard work and dedication – reach the state finals,” emphasized Nature Coast Technical’s Chance Phillips.

“He’s the poster child … He’s extremely symbolic … If you put in the work, good things could happen to you … At what separates him from the other heavyweights? At his core, fundamentally he didn’t make many mistakes.”

David Pritz

“He’s the Wrestler of the Year because he made it to the state finals. Period,” stressed 2019 Hernando County Coach of the Year David Pritz of Hernando High. “He wasn’t a one-tournament guy … He had a solid season … Definitely, a real coachable kid … A huge transformation from his freshman year.”

Greg Climan

“He’s a lot more athletic than you think when you see him walk on to the mat,” shared Central High’s Greg Climan. “He’s not a real flashy kid … But he got the job done.”

 

WOY Reaction

After hearing the news of being named Wrestler of the Year, “I’m glad the coaches noticed. I practiced against a lot of local guys trying to make them better. Deep down, it (the honor) made me feel good. After all this was my senior season.”

Spencer’s athletic roots

Spencer’s original organized sport – are you sitting down heavyweight fans? – was soccer.

At 4 years old, he played rec soccer at Hudson for eight years.

He didn’t just play forward or defender, he was “an all-around” player.

He recalls playing tackle football for a year as a defensive tackle.

He also spent six years playing baseball for West Hernando Little League, where his father was a coach.

In middle school, he enrolled at Fox Chapel, but didn’t play any sports for the Tigers as a sixth-grader.

As a seventh- and eighth-grader, he played football alternating between offensive line and defensive line.

Fox Chapel Tigers

He had such a strong leg – see, soccer did pay off – he also served as the Tigers’ place-kicker.

Once Spencer matriculated to F.W. Spingstead, he played jayvee football for one season before wrestling for four seasons.

Spencer graduated with a 2.5 grade point average and his favorite courses included Biology I and Geometry I.

Love for the mats

Springstead’s James Spencer outlasted Chamberlin Earnest Johnson for the Kiwanis title. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

On why he loves wrestling, “I enjoyed watching college wrestling on TV. When Oklahoma State or Iowa wrestles on the tube, I’m watching.

“When you’re there, I love the crowd. I enjoy their energy. Sure, I initially walked in nervous, who wouldn’t? But the crowd in the gym would get me stoked.”

Spencer, 18, explained when the light went off for him.

“As a freshman, I wasn’t into it like I am now,“ he said. “I bought into the workouts and regimen involved. Unless I had a doctor’s appointment, I never missed practice. It was like each year, I went up a step.”

On how he rounded into shape, “I got better only through hard work in practice,” noted Spencer. “I was dedicated to getting better. You learn something from every loss. As a result, I got smarter out there.”

On his style, “I know the first period of every heavyweight match is boring,” noted Spencer. “That’s when I’d be feeling out my opponent. Some guys would try to end it quickly with a throw – ’cause that’s all they had. Other guys would just do fat man’s roll, especially when they were on the bottom.

“What eventually made a big difference was my conditioning and hand fighting. I listened to what my coaches said and tried to execute the game plan.”

Rewinding states

Springstead High’s James Spencer vs Cole Blunt from Groveland-South Lake. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

“I remember coming in off a tremendous high. I had just won regionals. When you win the Region of Doom, you’ve done something. I remember pinning my first two guys pretty easily.

“I wasn’t looking necessarily to pin guys. Sometimes when you force the issue, bad things can happen. In my mind, if a pinning situation arose, I was gonna try to take advantage.

“… In the semifinals, when I built that 5-0 lead, I felt like I was in the driver’s seat (before downing Leto’s Edwin Ramirez, 8-3).

“… In the finals, the Broward kid had such long arms, I couldn’t do anything. And he was strong. I can’t complain, I got that far and he was a little better,” shared Spencer. “I wish I had the long arms he had. I heard he’s going to Jacksonville. I wish him luck.”

Spencer’s motivation

Spencer readily admits that as solid as his junior season was, finishing 0-2 at states served motivational fire for his senior year.

“I’d never gotten hurt in three years and then he landed on my ankle and I just couldn’t walk,” shared Spencer following his first-round state loss in 2018 to Cypress Lake’s Cole Lewis.

James Spencer

“I was fortunate to wrestle him again and beat him. In all, we met five times and beat him three times,” grinned Spencer.

“As well as my senior year went, it could’ve been better,” remarked Spencer. “A couple times, I had to cut to make 285. I wish I would’ve stayed on weight better.”

In a card of thanks, Spencer wanted to personally thank SHS assistant coach Scott Wern – a 2009 state finalist.

“Scott was a big help,” noted Spencer. “Sure, he showed me some moves that heavyweights never do. But we worked on being physical every day in practice.

Christian Reynolds

“I worked with Christian (Reynolds) the last three years. At first, I just tossed him around, but he improved dramatically as he got older and stronger.

“… I have to thank Coach LaRocca, too. He was the guy who kept telling me I’d be in the state finals one day. Looking back, I just kept buying in,” shared Spencer.

“Down the stretch, I had a lot of close matches and won a lot of them. Winning regionals was a shot in the arm. It was a tough building to walk into,” recalled Spencer. “But things went my way. Two of the better kids – Chamberlain’s Earnest Johnson and Poinciana’s Quaylen Hill – didn’t even advance to states.

“As well as I did in Brandon, I figured I was going to place at states. You don’t win at the Region of Doom and not place (at states).”

No regrets

Springstead James Spencer vs Citrus High Desmond Brown. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

After the curtains descended on his prep career, Spencer shared his one regret, “I wish I had gotten a little stronger.”

Life on the mats may not be over for Spencer.

NAIA’s Keiser University in West Palm Beach is a possibility.

The Seahawks were interested in his services and asked for transcripts, so Spencer obliged.

If Keiser doesn’t sign Spencer, he’ll most likely attend Pasco-Hernando State College.

Before facing the next chapter of his journey, “I’d like to be remembered as I guy who just did my best,” emphasized Spencer. “And was a good sport about it.

“I know I wouldn’t have gotten this far without all my coaches. I have to thank Christian (Reynolds) for being my partner for the last three years and (two-time state placer) Chris (Morales) for being such a hard worker and a great team leader.”

 By the Numbers:

Springstead’s James Spencer (2015-19)

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

FHSAA 2A Region 2 Champ at 285 pounds, James Spencer, bested Kevron Gadsen from East River. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
 

YEAR

 

W

 

L

 

.PCT

 

PINS

2015-16

4

9

.308

1

2016-17

21

11

.656

11

2017-18^*

41

14

.745

30

2018-19+*$

38

4

.905

26

 

TOTALS

 

104

 

38

 

.732

 

68

* Denotes All-Hernando County selection.

# Denotes Hernando County Wrestler of the Year.

^ Denotes state qualifier.

+ Denotes state placer (2nd)

By the Numbers: Springstead’s James Spencer

IBT Results (2015-19)

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

James Spencer vs Leto’s Edwin Ramirez                                                                                                                Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
 

EVENT

 

W

 

L

 

.PCT

 

PINS

 

PL

2015 Brooksville-Kiwanis

0

2

.600

0

2015-16 Corey HillInvitational

1

2

.333

0

2017 Tony Ippolito Invitational

1

2

.333

1

2017 Class 2A, District 5 Tourney

3

1

.750

3

3rd

2017 Class 2A, Region II Tourney

1

2

.333

1

2017 Brooksville-Kiwanis

5

2

.714

4

4th

2017 Knockout Classic

2

2

.500

2

2018 Chase Life

4

0

1.000

1

1st

2018 Flagler Rotary Invitational

3

3

.500

3

6th

2018 Clay Rotary Invitational

5

1

.833

4

3rd

2018 Class 2A, District 5 Tourney

2

0

1.000

2

1st

2018 Class 2A, Region II Tourney

3

1

750

3

2nd

2018 Class 2A, State Finals Tourney

0

2

.000

0

2018 Brooksville-Kiwanis

4

0

1.000

1

1st

2018-19 Corey Hill Invitational

2

1

.667

2

2nd

2019 Milton-Winter Invitational

3

1

.750

3

2nd

2019 Lake Gibson Invitational

3

1

.750

3

2nd

2019 Class 2A, District 5 Tourney

2

0

1.000

2

1st

2019 Class 2A, Region II Tourney

4

0

1.000

1

1st

2019 Class 2A, State Finals Tourney

3

1

.750

2

2nd

 

IBT TOTALS (20)

 

51

 

24

 

.720

 

38

 

14/20

 

 

 

 

 

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