Even with the challenges associated with COVID-19, it’s been a historic season for high school girls wrestlers from across the state of Utah.
You see, this is the first academic year girls wrestling has been sanctioned by the UHSAA. One program that has generated a lot of interest is Mountain Crest, which already has 32 athletes on its roster.
Wrestling has always been popular at the Hyrum-based school, but even head coach Janae Liljenquist wasn’t expecting this kind of turnout for a first-year program.
“It just came down to getting the girls fired up,” Liljenquist said. “They just needed to be motivated and know that this is was opportunity of a lifetime to be on the first girls wrestling team at Mountain Crest ... and so I think that motivated them. A lot of them had never stepped on a mat before. I think originally when (the school) brought me in, I think they had six girls who were interested and we (held) kind of a meet and greet, and I just told them about my background and how excited I am for them. And since then, it just grew from six to like 16, to even more. And even after we did the orange and blue tournament, we had two girls show up (to practice next week) because they saw it and they saw what the girls were doing.”
Every high school in Cache Valley has at least two girls competing in wrestling this year, Liljenquist said. Bear River, another school with a strong tradition in boys wrestling, has close to 20 girls on its roster.
Both Mountain Crest and Ridgeline competed in their first-ever big tournament this past Friday — the 28-team Christmas Clash Invitational, which was hosted by Westlake High School. The hosts racked up 166 points to edge Copper Hills (156 points) for the title. Mountain Crest was third with 105 points, while Ridgeline was 12th with 55.
The Mustangs brought 20 girls to the tourney and the number would have been significantly higher if it wasn’t for a COVID quarantine. Mountain Crest had six placers in Eastyn Nyman (fifth place at 124 pounds), Brooklyn Swanson (third at 132), Laci Larsen (sixth at 136), Hanna Evans (sixth at 145), Talia Johansen (fourth at 160) and Rosa Campos (second at 170).
Campos won her first three matches to earn a spot in the championship round. She prevailed in overtime in the semifinals. Swanson also had a trio of victories for the Mustangs, while Nyman bounced back from an opening-round loss in impressive fashion as she pinned her last four opponents.
“We might not be the most sound technically right now, but (our girls) just didn’t give up and I think that’s what was motivating,” Liljenquist said. “Craig (Dart) is amazing at teaching us the techniques and stuff, but you can’t teach that kind of heart and that kind of grit and mental toughness. ... It was amazing to see (these girls) last that long and go for that many rounds. I mean, they hadn’t ever wrestled that many times live.”
It was also a solid tournament for the Riverhawks, who had three of their seven athletes earn a spot on the podium. Ridgeline’s medalists were Grace Tallmadge (sixth at 120), Madelyn Topham (third at 136) and Makalya Pignataro (sixth at 170). Tallmadge went 4-2 with four pins, while Topham and Pignataro each won a pair of bouts by fall.
There are 14 different weight classes for high school girls in Utah, just like the boys.
Although her team has a lot of growing to do, Liljenquist is confident they are on the right track.
“I’m just really proud to be a part of this and to see the girls come out at 6 a.m. and work hard, and it’s just really inspiring and they’re amazing, I think,” she said. “I want everybody to be able to experience a match and watch them because they are so tough and we are just learning so much and just grasping on to everything.”
The Ridgeline boys were also in action this past weekend, one of 14 teams at the annual Viewmont Invitational. Mountain Crest was also scheduled to showcase its skills at Viewmont, but was under quarantine at the time.
The Riverhawks brought nine grapplers to the tourney and ended up finishing 13th with 39 points. Multiple-time defending 6A state champion Pleasant Grove amassed 217.5 points and pulled away from a tough field. Box Elder was second (178), followed by Payson (168.5).
Returning state runner-up Kaden Kirk advanced to the championship match at 182 pounds for the Riverhawks, where he was pinned late in the third round by Pleasant Grove’s Ted Johnson, a fellow defending state runner-up. Kirk stuck his other three opponents, including fourth-seeded Porter Bentley of Timpanogos in the semifinals.
Ridgeline 152-pounder Brenden Gessell went 2-2 and was one win away from making it to the placement rounds. Gessell lost his final duel in nailbiting fashion, 5-4.