Florida is a great state not only for weather but also for sport karate. It is a hotbed of talent and martial arts is a way of life. If you take five of the top competitors on the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) circuit, at least two will likely be from Florida. It is a state that boasts competitors like Marc Canonizado, Caitlin Dechelle, Damian Rodriguez, Leo Valdivia, Becca Ross and many more. And what is interesting about the Florida competitors is that even if they stop traveling the national circuit, they seem to continue to train and show up at national competitions in their back yard just to create havoc for the top seeds. Gator Nationals was a prime example with appearances on stage and during eliminations by competitors rarely seen.
Held May 18-19, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Gator Nationals is not the biggest NASKA world event but it certainly can claim to be one of the most scenic and relaxing. With the tournament hotel right on the beach, competitors were greeted with sunny skies, a chance to lay out in the sun and opportunity to vacation in addition to competing.
The Friday and Saturday eliminations ran smoothly and allowed everyone a chance to relax after competition. Men’s and women’s team sparring were the highlight of Friday evening. Fighting is big in Florida and men’s team sparring boasted seven teams. Somehow Team Paul Mitchell and Team Full Circle ended up in the same bracket which meant they fought each other in a semi-final round. It was the highlight match of the evening. Hamed Firouzi opened things up for Team Full Circle with a 5-1 win over Greg Betlach of Team Paul Mitchell. But Paul Mitchell was not going away empty handed as Deandre Walker closed the gap in his fight against Tico Vilda and Elias Lemon finished off Full Circle in his fight against Damian Rodriguez. After eliminating Full Circle, it was an easy walk into the winner’s circle for Paul Mitchell after toppling Team Bring It with a margin of more than 10 points.
For the women, Chelsey Nash couldn’t lead her team to victory over Team Full Circle as Melanie Ortiz and Mia Kelly defeated Nash and Nicole Pelland. Nash’s loss gave her the adrenaline to leave nothing to chance in her individual division the next day as she breezed through her opponents.
Finals opened with a surprise – an enthusiastic demo by KICK Team, reincarnated and younger. We haven’t seen KICK Team do a demo for a few years but it was like they had never left. However, it was new faces and younger faces on the well-choreographed team. KICK Team was challenged by local Team Intensity with their nunchuck demo team. Intensity’s red jackets were all over the stage and not one chuck was dropped by the young crew. The judges’ scores gave the win to Team Intensity although the announcer gave it to KICK Team – the mistake was corrected and Intensity breathed a sigh of relief as they received their award.
It was an event where a lot of dedicated but little known youth competitors had a chance to shine, especially in the girls’ divisions. Sisters Jae and Sage Sweeney have been working the circuit hard to get recognition. Sage finally had her chance as she won the 13 and under girls traditional forms competition. Isabella Caracta also got a big break, winning the 13 and under girls creative/musical/extreme weapons competition. And Casey Welsh was on stage in the finals showcasing her musical performance in the 13 and under forms competition. Finally, Florida’s Alex Sosa made his stage debut after winning the 14-17 boys traditional forms grand championships during the day.
Caracta got her chance on stage first facing Kaelyn Whaley and Danny Etkin. It was Etkin’s night to shine as he won the 13 and under weapons competition with his extreme musical performance. Etkin didn’t hold back this evening as he also won the 13 and under forms overall grands to make it a doubly-successful event for the kid.
Mistakes happen and they happened too often for comfort for the 14-17 weapons competitors in the finals. Shahin Jahan-vash had difficulty unsheathing his sword in his traditional routine and Sammy Smith dropped a chuck. It came down to the traditional routine of Stephanie Figueroa and the crazy spins of Jackson Rudolph’s bo. It was Jackson with the title this evening. Mackensi Emory wanted to win the forms grand championship and she performed hard but not hard enough as Alex Sosa stunned the veteran competitors with a win with his Japanese routine.
It wasn’t just forms and weapons that were on stage for the kids, the Gators staged some youth point sparring matches for the finals. Ally Montero of Florida won her match for the girls. For the boys, Kyle Robbins toppled John Curatolo in the 16-17 boys final fight. Ross Cooke of Team AKA won the challenge for the 14-17 boys fighting challenge.
Becca Ross was planning to show her hometown Florida crowd a great performance but a dropped bo stopped her short. The other two Florida competitors, Jenny Espina and Caitlin Dechelle were left to perform but Espina dropped her bo as well. Dechelle only needed to hold onto her sword to prevail. And she did. In forms, you can’t drop anything and Ross was clean in her traditional forms performance but it was Dechelle again who was able to get the judges’ votes for a double grands title. Oh, and Dechelle took a third title with Marc Canonizado in Synchronized Teams on stage to round out the evening and her pocketbook.
Men’s weapons featured four great performances. First was a performance going down memory lane as Florida’s Jeremiah Miller gave a traditional sword performance to the delight of his hometown crowd. He’s grown up on the sport karate circuit and is prime example of homegrown Florida talent. But it was Matt Emig’s nunchucks that really impressed the judges as he garnered three perfect 10s and the title for the evening. However, that was not enough for Emig as he took over the stage in forms with determination. His challengers were Jarrett Leiker, Marc Canonizado and a face not seen for a few years – Giovanni Gonzalez, again from Florida. Emig was not distracted by the competition and stayed focused on the prize with a second grand championship title.
The women’s daytime eliminations were a bit brutal but really fun. Melanie Ortiz dislocated a shoulder and had to go to the hospital to have it popped back in. Local fighters showed up to really give the top competitors a challenge. In the end, teammates Chelsey Nash and Nicole Pelland went to the stage. The match was one where Nash displayed her patience, waited for openings and capitalized. Nash scored with some quick blitzes and ended the fight with a 5-2 lead for the title.
Men’s sparring saw Jamie Cravens win the 30 and over men’s sparring title and then get the pleasure of heading to the stage to face Ross Levine for the overall championship. It didn’t go very well for Cravens who had already bruised most of his body during
his eliminations fights. Levine didn’t help, landing some nasty kicks and punches on Cravens, who will spend a lot of time in the hot tub on Sunday to recover. Hamed Firouzi and Leo Valdivia were the second semi-finals match with Firouzi landing a nasty ridge hand during the fight that ended with Firouzi in the lead.
The final fight between Levine and Firouzi was a great demonstration of strategy and brutality, Although friends outside of the ring, the two have no problem hitting hard when the bell rings. The match was close with Firouzi landing a nice kick to Levine’s face and Levine knocking the smaller Firouzi around a bit. In the end, it was Levine with the 7-4 score as the buzzer sounded.
As the finals wound down, if you were quiet for a minute, you could hear the beach calling everyone to come and have a little bit of fun. Florida’s impact on the sport was well documented at the event and partaking of all the state has to offer was the proper way to pay homage.