(Paul W. Gillespie)
Some girls who won medals were seniors; some were freshmen. Some already plan to wrestle in college; some have been competing for just a few months.
At the MPSSAA's first girls-only folkstyle wrestling tournament at Northeast High School, the diversity in the gym only served to underscore how the sport brought all the young women together.
Around 80 girls from across the state participated in Saturday's inaugural MPSSAA Girls Tournament. The field included wrestlers from Annapolis, Broadneck, Glen Burnie, Northeast, South River and Southern High Schools in Anne Arundel and Atholton, Howard, Mount Hebron and Reservoir in Howard County.
Northeast freshman Lacee Schmidt won the gold medal in the 125-pound class and Mount Hebron senior Cassy Lopez took gold in the 106.
The girls were bracketed into 16 weight classes of four or five wrestlers each, determined by the morning weigh-ins for an even distribution rather than by the standard high school weights. Each wrestler matched up against the other three or four girls in their class in a round-robin format.
Schmidt went 3-0 in her class, starting with a pin of Reservoir's Sabrina Dumas. Her most exciting match was her second, against Northwood's Jasmine Alvarez. The score was 5-5 through one period when Schmidt fell behind on a takedown, but she salvaged an escape to pull within 7-6 after two. In the first 20 seconds of the final frame, she scored another escape and followed it up with a takedown, putting her up for good as she won by decision, 9-7.
Schmidt finished by defeating South River's Gwen Owens by 10-2 major decision. Owens went on to win the 125-pound's bronze medal.
By tournament's end, Schmidt was so exhilarated she could barely remember how she won her first match.
"When you wrestle, you just forget everything that you do, you know what I'm saying?" she said. "You watch videos and you're like, 'Oh, that's what I did, maybe that's what I need to improve on.'"
Some of the pairings in the final round turned out to be true gold-medal matches, including at 106 and 160. At 106, Lopez pinned each of her first three opponents in 20 seconds or less, while Northeast senior Micah Santos also started 3-0. Santos pinned Broadneck's Analese Ney in 26 seconds and added a pin against Skylar Rupe of Havre de Grace.
Santos gave Lopez a run for her money at the start of their showdown, but the Viking star scored a few takedowns and recorded the pin at 1:13.
A veteran of the sport, Lopez has twice won the Maryland State Wrestling Association's Triple Crown Award for winning a state championship in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco wrestling in the same year.
"It's nice seeing the big turnout (at Northeast). It's awesome seeing women's wrestling grow in Maryland," said Lopez, who has five offers to wrestle in college. "I'm really proud of how much the sport has grown in such short time."
At 160, Annapolis junior Samantha Lund was one of the surprises of the day. She started wrestling a few months ago, so this was not just her first girls-only tournament — it was her first wrestling tournament of any kind.
"There's a lot of respect for the other athletes, because it's hard to be a girl in this sport," Lund said of the atmosphere. "It's been fun."
Lund put everything she's learned so far into practice. In her first two matches, she performed single-leg takedowns and turned both into pins. She pinned her third opponent not long after that.
She ran into Quince Orchard's Sarah Mesri in the final round, when both were still undefeated. Lund got out to a 2-0 lead after an evenly-matched first minute and led 4-2 after one period. But Mesri took advantage of a mistake Lund made in the second period and pulled out a pin at 2:49.
Lund, who's also participated in gymnastics and track, said it took her time to adjust to the sport's aggressiveness, but now has come to enjoy that aspect.
"I like that it's an individual sport, but you still have your team to back you up," Lund added.
Northeast senior Lisa McChesney (127) rebounded from an opening-round loss to eventual gold medalist Destiny Benjamin of Dulaney and earned silver. Her first win was a pin of Glen Burnie's Chloe Campbell, and she also defeated Kalin Bower of Middletown, 7-0.
Delmy Guzman had Glen Burnie's highlight of the afternoon when she defeated Bailey Palmer of Lansdowne. Guzman notched three takedowns in a hectic 6-4 first period, and soon added a fourth takedown that led to a pin at 2:15.
Tournament co-directors Chris Dyke and Chad Vosburg, the respective head coaches of Northeast and Severna Park, were happy with how the day transpired and optimistic it would build momentum toward their future goals.
"I thought it was a great turnout. The overall quality of wrestling was great," Vosburg said. "It gave a lot of girls a chance to really come out and shine, and it's a chance to show where the future of our sport can go."
"I think it's a catapult to expand for next year," Dyke said. "Where that expansion takes (us) is to be determined. Obviously we're looking to double our numbers, double to triple, and that will project us to more events in the next three to five years."
Dyke and Vosburg feel the girls who wrestled Saturday would make the best ambassadors or recruiters for attracting more girls to the sport. Building participation is key for the sport's health, Dyke said, and "in order to build participation, (we need) to include everybody, male and female."
McChesney and her Northeast teammates are grateful that their coach supports female participation in the sport.
"Honestly, he's probably one of the best coaches — and he's always there, like, always. There's not one time he's not there. He wouldn't miss anything for the world," McChesney said. "Some guy coaches don't really support girls. So it's really good that he does. I love it."
Vosburg likened their next steps to "a numbers game."
"The more girls you get coming out for the sport, the more demand there is for tournaments and events like this," he said.
Plenty of girls who competed Saturday are still in their early years of high school, so their goals might not be too lofty. Schmidt smiled when she heard she was not the only freshman to medal Saturday.
"Keep going, girls," she said. "Keep fighting. We're bomb. I'm proud of us, you know?"
All 16 gold medalists are listed below. Howard's Priyanka Kundu (122) also won silver and Southern's Ashley Knapp (115) and Mount Hebron's Kiersten Rogers (120) won bronze.
102: Constance C. Nwaigwe, Wheaton
106: Cassandra Lopez, Mount Hebron
107: Jasmine De La Vega, Richard Montgomery
108: Anya Knappenberger, Urbana
115: Lily Schelling, Gaithersburg
118: Trinity Walker, Henry A. Wise
120: Taylor Stone, St. Charles
122: Maggie Palmore, Northwood
125: Lacee Schmidt, Northeast
127: Destiny Benjamin, Dulaney
130: Grace Oswald, Huntingtown
135: Yvette Horner, North Hagerstown
141: Isabella Pineda, Montgomery Blair
152: Sawyer Graham, C. Milton Wright
160: Sarah Mesri, Quince Orchard
182: Azanna Hutchinson, North Point