By CONOR NICHOLL
Highly successful Washburn Rural women’s wrestling coach Damon Parker likes to work through brackets and statistically map out results. Parker’s calculations are normally within five to eight points of the final tallies.
A few days after the Junior Blues won their 5-6A regional, Parker began to comb through the state tournament, held Wednesday and Thursday at Hartman Arena. Parker remains highly confident in his team. Rural won the inaugural KSHSAA sanctioned all-classes state tournament two years ago in Salina. Last season, girls’ wrestling split into a pair of classes.
Rural won, with Wichita North second, Garden City third and Dodge City fourth. This winter, the Junior Blues, with the bulk of their points coming from non-returning state placers, delivered another undefeated season.
That included easily winning a major Iowa tournament. In the last three years, Rural girls have lost twice: a second place showing at the 2020 league meet with a unique scoring system that is not regularly used, and a dual last winter to Emporia.
However, Rural never crossed paths with Wichita North in ’21-22, a reason that marks projecting this state tournament difficult. Rural saw Dodge City once.
“That’s a little tricky man, usually you try to set up the schedule to where you see all of the powers throughout the course of the year,” Parker said. “And somehow it just worked out to where we didn’t run into North anywhere this year, and that’s something I would like to rectify in the future, but yeah, it’s a fun adventure anticipating that action.”
North defeated Dodge City at the large Nickerson tournament on Jan. 21. Then, at the Feb. 12 regional at Wichita North, Dodge City defeated WN, 179.5-142.5. However, entering state, the top-three teams are Wichita North, Dodge City and Rural.
Another reason for the closeness between the top-three is the overall variance of girls’ wrestling compared to boys. Girls wrestling generally has more pins and bonus point opportunities. Overall, the state tournament race between Rural, North and Dodge City is likely to be close.
“We tell them just to go out and compete their best and wherever the chips fall, we are just going to be proud of them either way as long as they give their best effort,” Dodge City coach Tate Lowe said. “Whether it’s the state tournament or just a home dual, you have to approach every single match the same, and if you hype up one of them, and you don’t hype up the other, you are not consistent.
“We know that we are good,” Lowe added. “And we know that ‘Hey, if we compete at our best, there’s an opportunity that we could win state,’ but we don’t talk about ‘like, hey, let’s go out and do it.’ When we set our goals at the beginning of the year, that was a goal they had.”
Washburn Rural delivered 11 qualifiers, Dodge City qualified 10, and Wichita North eight. At 101 and 132, all three teams have a ranked wrestler.
North has six ranked wrestlers, including junior Larissa Garcia (No. 2 109) and junior Rodah Benji (No. 1 115). All six North ranked wrestlers are at weight class 132 or below. Overall, North has four seniors: Bilhah Bengi (29-7) at 101, Sandra Arellano (29-7) at 132, Edna Flores (23-12) at 170, and Emily Jasenthuleanage (15-16) at 235.
“Those kids that are excelling right now and having a great season, they were at summer weights with all the summer athletes and lifting and getting stronger,” North coach Quinton Burgess said. “They were going to camps. They were working on open mat stuff, doing freestyle, and really just kind of putting in the time. And one thing that we always talk about in our room is wrestling is the sport you cannot cheat.”
Garcia is 69-6 in her career. Benji (36-0) part of another interesting class that includes Olathe North freshman Kaylan Hitchcock (35-3), Gardner-Edgerton senior Lilly Kepler (30-6), and Shawnee Heights junior Molly Busenitz (24-1).
Dodge City has seven ranked wrestlers, though none in higher than freshman Hailey Ramos’ third at 132. DC has no seniors on its roster. Neither Wichita North nor Dodge City has ever won a wrestling state championship. DC, featured as the SIK American Implement Team of the Week this week, returned three state placers.
Junior Ashley Arroyo is 30-5 at 155 and a defending state runner-up. Sophomore 126-pounder Ariana De La Rosa (28-3) and junior 170-pounder Jolette Almaraz (25-3) were both fourth. Dodge City didn’t have its entire team together until the last week of the regular season.
“I knew once we had our full team that we would be a force just because they are really good,” Lowe said. “But we are also know Wichita North is good. We also know that Topeka-Washburn Rural is good. We have seen them this year. So I am just excited for this upcoming week. I am excited for not only our girls, but girls’ wrestling in general.”
Rural features five ranked wrestlers, including three of Kansas’ more well-known names: 120-pound junior Addison Broxterman, 132-pound junior Alexis Frederickson, and senior Jaliah Johnson at 155. Broxterman and Frederickson are ranked second, Johnson third.
Broxterman is a returning state runner-up, Frederickson took fifth, and Johnson third last winter.
Frederickson, a team captain, is known for her comebacks. Parker noted Frederickson has more than five wins this year where she was behind in the third period and came back and won.
“That girl is just unbreakable mentally, and that’s the kind of mental approach that you have to take into the state tournament, so we are enormously excited to see where Alexis goes over the next week or two,” Parker said.
The 155 weight class is intriguing with Manhattan move-in Sage Rosario, 5-0 this season and a former Alabama state champion. Johnson has lost to Rosario twice this winter, both in close third-period falls.
Broxterman is 92-20 all-time and is currently No. 11 on the all-time wins list for Kansas girls’ wrestlers, per SIK, researcher David Heidrick and other sources.
“On the girls’ side, a lot of times it is a crapshoot,” Parker said. “It really just depends on who shows up that day, and there’s just so many more pins in girls’ wrestling. The bonus points are a little bit tougher to predict, with the guys’ side, the further you get into the tournament, you don’t see many falls, so it’s pretty easy to predict point finishes. But on the girls’ side, that is a little bit different. And you can see more upsets on the girls’ side as well.”
Additionally, 5-6A features several of the state’s all-time bests. Lawrence Free State 138-pound senior Madyson Gray is ranked in the top-five nationally. She is 91-0 all-time against Kansas girls, the most wins without a loss in state annals. Gray won an unofficial state title at McPherson in 2019 and picked up sanctioned crowns the last two winters.
Gray is 110-12 in her career, including against boys. For the first time, Lawrence High and Lawrence Free State joined together to form a girls’ wrestling team. Her father, Darin Gray, served as coach. Madyson picked up career win No. 100 at the Washburn Rural tournament on Jan. 29.
To Madyson’s surprise, her teammates came together with a banner and plaque celebrating 100 career wins. Madyson will have her familiar dyed red hair for state. Known for her extraordinary work ethic, she has competed in Japan and Spain, and has committed to Grand View (Iowa), the No. 1-ranked NAIA squad.
“I just want to leave knowing that I put 150 percent on that mat,” Gray told SIK. “Obviously I want to win. I want to get that four-timer title, but I mainly just want to go out there and put myself, my heart down there on that mat and just work. Put all that work that I have put into it and use it and just leave it all out on the mat.”
Plus, Olathe South sophomore Nicole Redmond and Emporia senior Madelynn Griffin are ranked 1-2 at 126. Griffin has 104 career wins, and Redmond is 55-3 in her career. Redmond is a returning state titlist. Griffin has also signed with Ottawa wrestling.
“I think I just want to soak it in,” Griffin told SIK. “I am excited to be able to compete with a team that we have right now. Obviously I want to get first. I think it’s just going to be a good reflection of the last five years that I have put to this sport.”
Bonner Springs sophomore Olivia Stean won a state title as a freshman and delivered a dominant 38-0 season. Stean’s dad also won a state high school title.
In addition to the high-profile Rural trio of Broxterman, Frederickson and Johnson, Parker is highly pleased with the rest of his lineup. Sophomore Kristin Rezac (33-6) qualified at 101. Rezac was a little undersized last winter.
“Pound for pound, I would be surprised if there is another wrestler in the state that is stronger than Kristin Rezac,” Parker said.
Junior Kaitlyn Morris (23-9) is at 109. Parker believes that Rezac “has kind of quietly put together one of the better seasons” in Washburn Rural girls’ wrestling history. She is part of a deep group that could swing the state race that includes North senior Bilhah Bengi, Liberal junior Mana Chanthasone, Dodge City’s Jessica Rivera and K.C. Turner’s Arianna Ortiz.
“I think 101 top to bottom might be the toughest weight class in the state this year,” Parker said. “I think you look at the six girls that are ranked at that weight, and I think you can put them in and shake them up every week and it would come out with a different result. I think there’s six girls that have the ability to win a state title, so it will be really interesting to see what happens there.”
Senior Kendall Reid (24-12) won a regional title, her first-ever high school tournament championship, at 115. Reid has committed to Ottawa women’s wrestling and has been a part of the Rural program since the start. She was a varsity wrestler two seasons ago. Last year, she was ranked in the state, though suffered a season-ending knee injury. At regional, Reid scored the most team points for Rural.
“Elation,” Parker said. “It was about as excited as I have ever seen her. Kendall is finally starting to realize what she is truly capable of, and that’s such a big thing in this sport. Until kids really start believing in themselves as much as their coaches and teammates believe in them, it’s tough to win. And I think Kendall is starting to realize how good she could actually be and how good she actually is, and it’s showing in the product she is putting out on the mat.”
At 143, sophomore Laiken Clark is 28-11, while sophomore Sophia Ross stands at 27-13 at 235. Plus, three freshmen qualified: Annie Gallegos (24-7) at 126, Madison Davison (27-13) at 138, and Ta’Ani Rhoten (19-8) at 170. Gallegos and Davison both wrestled in kids’ club and middle school.
The effervescent Parker is known for recruiting new wrestlers. Rhoten was in his weights class and impressed with her strength. About three weeks into the school year, Parker convince Rhoten to try wrestling. At the beginning of the year, Rhoten didn’t know how the scoring worked. Now, Parker said she is “tearing it up.”
The freshmen have been a key part of Rural’s success and could be pivotal in the close race this weekend.
“They are our ace in the hole,” Parker said. “Like I know that we are not the top-ranked team in the state this year. But all we have done is win. Everywhere we go. … Nobody else really knows about them, because they are either young or new to the sport, and they are not common names around wrestling circles, but they certainly will be shortly.”