GREENSBORO — Mount Airy made a big impact at the NCHSAA Women’s Wrestling State Invitational Championship for the third consecutive year.
A pair of Granite Bear juniors, Jamie Hearl and Hope Horan, became the first Mount Airy wrestlers to compete in the tournament back in 2021 and qualified each of the past three years.
Both girls took home hardware from the 2023 meet held Feb. 3-4. Hearl finished on the podium for the first time by winning a silver medal in the 100-pound bracket, and Horan medaled for the third consecutive year by winning bronze in the 114-pound bracket.
Nearly 200 wrestlers statewide, regardless of school classification, competed in the state championship tournament. An additional 180 or so wrestlers took part in the NCHSAA Women’s Showcase Tournament, held concurrently for wrestlers that didn’t qualify for states.
“This is always an awesome experience and shows just how far the sport has come,” said Mount Airy coach Cody Atkins. “They’ve basically doubled in numbers every year.”
The two-day state tournament began at Friday evening at the RISE Indoor Sports Complex in Advance and featured all non-medal matches. The wrestlers then competed at the Greensboro Coliseum Saturday morning in both the championship and consolation finals.
The 2023 women’s invitational will be the final installment of the tournament as women’s wrestling is set to become an NCHSAA sanctioned sport in 2023-24.
Following the first-ever women’s regional championship, Mount Airy – who finished Regional Runner-up in a field of 47 teams – had four wrestlers qualify for the state tournament: Hearl, Horan, Constance Melton and Jenevy Olalde.
“It surprised me to walk out of regionals with a trophy purely because of our numbers,” Atkins said. “I was on top of the world. The girls have worked very hard this year, so I expected to do well, it’s just that regionals is 1A through 4A and we’re a really small school.
“If we could fill all 12 weight classes I feel like we could definitely win regionals and make a run for states considering how well we did with seven wrestlers.”
Hearl came into the 2023 tournament looking to continue her ascent from the two previous installments. She was eliminated in the first round as a freshman, then won twice in the 2022 tournament before falling to the eventual 100 pounds champion: South Brunswick’s Lily Prendergast.
Jamie came into the championship tournament as one of the top four seeds after winning the Midwest Regional Championship. She won comfortably via decision in the first round against Hoke County’s Azya Monrow, then earned a victory via fall in the second round.
Hearl faced Manteo’s Thalia Aguirre Gomez in the quarterfinals. A takedown, reversal and near fall gave Hearl a 7-2 lead after the first period, then the Granite Bear added a near fall in the second period before pinning Gomez in the third period.
The semifinals provided a rematch from 2022, with Hearl taking on the defending champion Prendergast.
This year’s match went much differently than the previous installment. Hearl scored the first 11 points of the match, then only gave up one point late in the third period to win via major decision.
Hearl faced another familiar opponent in the championship: Freedom High School’s Jeulenea Khang.
“They’ve faced off a few times and Khang has won each won, though it’s gotten closer each time they wrestle,” Atkins said. “Most recently they battled in the Holy Angels Tournament this year.
“Khang is a senior, and both girls are nationally ranked.”
Neither side scored in the first period, then a two-point reversal gave Khang the lead midway through the second period. The reversal would provide the only points of the match as Khang went on to win 2-0.
“Jamie came in just wanting to place, and I was super happy with her for making it all the way to the finals,” Atkins said. “I know she was a little upset after the match, but losing to a Super 32 All-American in the finals is nothing to hang your head about, especially after beating the defending state champion in the semifinals.”
Khang, who improved to 43-6 on the year with the championship victory, was named Most Valuable Performer at the state meet. Hearl holds a record of 37-6.
“That 100 bracket was stacked, so a lot of people thought that whoever won it would be named MVP,” Atkins said.
Horan came into the 2023 tournament having won a silver medal at 113 her freshman year and a gold medal at 114 her sophomore year.
Hope, who finished runner-up at the Midwest Regional Championship, topped Clayton’s Savannah Lee in the first round. Horan took a 2-1 lead in the first period with a takedown, then pinned Lee late in the second period.
Horan then upset the West’s No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals, doing so in dominating fashion. Horan led 7-0 against Hoke County’s Sara Warren in the first period, then pinned Warren before the end of the period.
Hope fell in the semifinals to Lumberton’s Teresa Canady, but nearly pulled off an improbably comeback. After trailing 9-1 entering the third period, Horan outscored Canady 5-0 in the final two minutes to cut the lead to 9-6 before time expired.
Despite falling short of a repeat, Atkins said Horan’s ability to come back the next day and win bronze was incredible to watch.
“I wanted her to win again, but for her to come back after losing in the semis was a big deal,” the coach said. “Kids that win a year before then lose before the finals have a hard time, but to come back says a lot about her. It shows a lot about her character to pick herself back up after a loss and win third.
“I was so proud of her for that.”
The bronze-medal match was another tight contest. Horan led 2-0 at the end of one period after scoring a takedown, then went up 4-1 with another takedown in the second. Cleveland’s Addison Vindigni cut Horan’s lead to 4-2, but couldn’t complete the comeback.
Horan moves to 29-17 overall after the tournament.
Two Granite Bears competed in their first state tournament: sophomore Constance Melton and freshman Jenevy Olalde.
Melton competed in the 132 bracket. The sophomore, who finished fourth at regionals, trailed just 2-0 in her opening match against the East Regional Champion before losing via fall. Her first-round opponent, Heide Trask’s Lauren Hall, went on to finish third in the bracket after losing to the eventual champion.
Melton battled back with a consolation victory over Swain County’s Asiah Ball. Constance led 7-0 after the first period, then held a 9-4 advantage before pinning Ball.
The Granite Bear then fell to Green Hope’s DeAnna Fox.
“For her to qualify for states in just her second year wrestling is a big deal,” Atkins said. “She’s already improved so much and is only going to get better with time.”
Melton finishes the year with a 16-7 record.
Olalde competed in the 107-pound bracket for Mount Airy.
“She’s just a freshman and has been part of our wrestling club since she was younger,” Atkins said. “She won middle school states last year and has done well in high school.”
Atkins added that Olalde and Hearl weigh about the same, but Olalde had to wrestle up for states.
Jenevy fell to North Henderson’s Liliana Zapote via 6-0 decision in the opening round, then dropped her consolation match to Croatan’s Kaylum Mills via 4-2 decision.
Olalde finishes the year 22-7.
“For her to finish regional runner-up as a freshman while wrestling up is a big deal,” Atkins said.
Mount Airy had the highest team finish of any 1A or 2A school in the state, taking the No. 8 spot among 101 teams.
“To come in there with four wrestlers and finish in the top 10, especially against some of the giant 3A and 4A schools, was really impressive in my mind,” Atkins said. “It surprised me that we were up there in the mix; not because we didn’t have quality wrestlers, but some of these schools with 1,500 kids have teams three or four times our size.”
Three Granite Bears competed in the Women’s Showcase Tournament: Alexis Atkins at 126, Grace Segrest at 138 and Jasmine Davis at 195.
“It was great that they held a tournament for the people that didn’t qualify for states, because getting that mat time against girls from all over the state is going to help us so much in the long run,” Atkins said. “All seven of our wrestlers are much better off having competed last weekend, and we are fortunate to get all seven back next year.”
Hearl and Horan are both set to compete in the 1A West Regional Championship Tournament, which features the top boys and girls wrestlers in the region, on Feb. 10-11.
Hearl will compete in the 106-pound division, and Horan is set for the 113-pound division.
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