Well-traveled Bruno seeking out best competition

What brings families to Florida?

For many, it's a vacation to the Orlando area to experience Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and other family-oriented attractions ... or to the beaches along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Some families relocate to the Sunshine State for employment opportunities.

Rossi Bruno and his family came to Florida for the wrestling.

Five years ago, the Brunos migrated south from Wisconsin to the Tampa Bay area with the idea of nurturing their eldest son Rossi's wrestling career. Seems to have worked. Rossi, who just completed his sophomore year, already owns three Florida state titles (his first was as an eighth grader) ... and has made a name for himself in national competition. In fact, he is currently No. 11 in the nation across all weight classes in InterMat's ranking of Class of 2012 wrestlers.

Heading south

Earlier this decade, Ross and Debbie Bruno had been living in West Allis, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee, raising a family ... including son Rossi, who had demonstrated an aptitude -- and love -- for wrestling from an early age. It may have been in the family DNA.

Rossi Bruno with his father, Ross
Rossi Bruno's father Ross, a Chicago native, was introduced to wrestling by his stepfather, Al DeSouza. Ross wrestled at Mt. Carmel High, then at Marquette University in Milwaukee. After Marquette eliminated its wrestling program in 2001, Ross continued his wrestling career on his own. "I brought Rossi to my wrestling practices when he was four years old," said the elder Bruno. "He thought wrestling is just what you did."

Rossi echoed that sentiment: "I remember getting on the mats when I was 3 or 4 years old. I always liked it. I thought it was a fun way of being aggressive."

Fast forward nearly a decade. As Ross described the situation, "I was coaching in high school in Milwaukee, a mediocre team. I realized that if I wanted to bring Rossi to the next level, we might have to move."

"We had talked about expanding our house, but then thought, maybe this is the time to move instead ... Winters are so rough up there."

Ross Bruno continued, "We had started to do some online research. We had been aware of the wrestling program at Brandon (High School) in Florida. We took a vacation, just to check things out. My wife and I were both able to find jobs right away, so we made the move."

"The timing was just right."

Welcome to Florida

Moving hundreds of miles away from friends and the life you've known can be tough for anyone ... especially for an adolescent. Rossi Bruno was no exception.

"We moved in the middle of seventh grade," said Rossi. "I hated it at first, but as I got to know the wrestlers, I decided I liked it here."

For the first two years of his time in Florida, Rossi Bruno attended school at Tampa Bay Christian Academy. "My coach there had been from Brandon, which helped prepare me for high school," said Rossi.

In eighth grade, Rossi Bruno won his first Florida high school state title. (According to his mom Debbie, in Florida, eighth graders in private schools are eligible to wrestle at the state tournament.) Here's how the wrestling Web site at Tampa Bay Christian Academy described the 2008 finals match:

Rossi Bruno put on one of the best demonstrations of toughness ever witnessed. After being head butted and receiving a deep cut on his lip, Rossi was down 5-0 before he knew what happened. Then after numerous blood stoppages, he stormed back to win the state championship 9-8 at the 103-pound weight class. Rossi put on an amazing demonstration of determination and heart! His performance was absolutely amazing as he capped an undefeated season at 39-0!

When asked about the high points of his young career, Rossi immediately cited this match. "I was six or seven points behind well into the second period," he recalled. "My coach at the time, Mike Joyce, kept reminding me of the hard work I had put in all season to get to that point, and how I would regret giving up now."

As a further indication of Rossi Bruno's gutsy performance, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the referee wanted to end the match because of Bruno's bleeding, but his coach convinced the official to let his wrestler continue. Here's what Bruno told the paper after winning his first title: "All the hard work and great coaching paid off tonight. I am glad Coach Joyce asked if I could continue. Now I am looking to next season, but I will work out all summer."

Wrestling at Brandon ... and beyond

Now Rossi Bruno is at Brandon High School, located about 20 miles east of Tampa, and home to one of the top prep wrestling programs in Florida -- and the nation.

Even sports fans who don't know a takedown from a touchdown may know Brandon wrestling for The Streak. The school's wrestling program had 459 straight dual-meet victories going back to 1973 -- the longest winning streak of any high school sport. The Streak garnered national attention, thanks to coverage on ESPN, USA Today ... even Live with Regis and Kelly. It all came to an end in January 2008, when South Dade High defeated Brandon at the Eagles' own tournament. However, in the two-and-a-half years since the streak was broken, the Eagles have not lost a single dual.

Russ Cozart
The mastermind for Brandon's success is Russ Cozart, the Eagles' head coach since 1980. Cozart is a multi-time Florida Coach of the Year winner, and two-time National Wrestling Coach of the Year. Under Cozart's direction, the Eagles have won 19 Florida state team titles, and can claim more than 70 individual state championships.

The Brandon Eagles are respected well beyond the borders of Florida. The Eagles were ranked as the top team in the nation in 2005 by InterMat. The program has turned out a number of mat standouts, including Eric and Cesar Grajales, David Craig, Joe Cozart, Josh Lambrecht, and Franklin Gomez, to name a few.

In his two years wrestling for Russ Cozart at Brandon High, Rossi Bruno has compiled a near-perfect 121-1 record, with his second and third Florida state titles at 119 pounds as a freshman (2009) and sophomore (2010).

Rossi has tasted success on wrestling mats outside the Sunshine State as well. He won the 119-pound championship at the 2009 NHSCA Freshman Nationals ... and, earlier this year, was runner-up at 125 at the 2010 NHSCA Sophomore Nationals. Between those events, Rossi claimed the 119 title at the 2009 Cheesehead Classic post-Christmas tournament in Wisconsin.

Rossi Bruno won the Cheesehead Classic
In addition to these folkstyle events, Rossi Bruno is also competing in freestyle and Greco-Roman. Last year at the 2009 FILA Cadet Nationals, the Brandon Eagle placed fourth in freestyle at 127.75 pounds, and second in Greco at the same weight.

Which brings us to another aspect of Rossi Bruno's life. Like so many elite young wrestlers, he and his family really put on the miles as they travel to major wrestling events. Listening to the Brunos talk, you'd think Rossi was the inspiration for the George Clooney character in the movie Up In The Air. Among the places this road warrior has wrestled in the past few months: Baltimore, Atlanta, Virginia Beach, North Carolina, and South Carolina ... and, of course, returning to his native Wisconsin, for the Cheesehead Classic in Kaukauna. As of this writing, Bruno plans to compete in Fargo later this month.

How do the Brunos incorporate all this wrestling travel into their schedules? It helps that dad Ross has his own business, and that mom Debbie works evenings at home.

Man at work

Rossi Bruno described his wrestling style as, "Very intense. Always working hard. Don't want to lose."

Rossi Bruno
In terms of wrestlers Rossi admires for their on-the-mat performance, Rossi cited a couple other wrestlers originally from Wisconsin, Ben and Max Askren. However, the three-time Florida state champ admits that the Askrens' brand of funk isn't necessarily something he's adopted for himself, preferring to stick with "elemental moves."

A recurring theme that emerges from talking to Rossi Bruno is hard work. It even comes up when talking about what he likes to do for fun: "Before hanging out with friends, we might work out first, then go to the beach or whatever."

In describing his experience at Brandon, Rossi said, "Practices are more intense. Coach Cozart works us hard. But we have to work hard to remain at the top, and do well against our competition, not just in Florida, but with the best teams in the country, too."

"There are good wrestlers in Florida, but they're scattered around the state, not all at certain schools," Rossi continued. "Our dual meet wins here don't get much national recognition. We have to show we can hang with anyone in the country."

To help Rossi Bruno and his teammates prepare to take on the nation's best wrestlers, coach Cozart has brought in Brandon wrestling alumni, as well as college coaches such as Ethan Bosch of Clarion, Matt Valenti at Penn, and various members of the Wisconsin coaching staff for wrestling clinics and camps. In addition to gaining valuable instruction, this arrangement has further benefits for Eagle wrestlers. As Rossi put it, "They see us in action, which is great for recruiting. And we get a sense of how these guys work, which helps us know about a program before we even visit."

Speaking of colleges ... does Rossi Bruno have any in mind to continue his wrestling career beyond Brandon? Right now, he's not naming any names, other than saying that he knows he will have to go far from home to wrestle in college. He lamented that there are no college wrestling programs in Florida. "I think the nearest D1 program is The Citadel, and that's hundreds of miles away," said the soon-to-be high school junior.

What does the future hold for Rossi Bruno? He doesn't openly state any specific goals for college or beyond; as he put it, "I've got plenty of years to see what happens." He did say, "Wrestling's always going to be a part of my life. Even if I don't have a career in coaching, I expect I will be coaching my own kids."

"Everyone here jokes about moving back to Brandon after college, and continuing the dynasty."


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