PATASKALA — The Licking Heights wrestling team competed Wednesday at Marion Harding without one of their veteran statisticians mat side.
It was time for junior Lauren Seeman to step onto the mat. Seeman and freshman Molly Crabtree represented Heights in Watkins Memorial’s Watkins Girls Wrestling Invitational.
“I wrestled the boys, but I never really wrestled,” said Seeman, who took the plunge this season. She and Crabtree competed in a girls quad at Westerville North earlier this season. “Wrestling is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s so rewarding.”
Nearly 200 high school girls competed with more than 150 more middle schoolers joining them. The invitational included several reigning individual state champions and the last three state team champions crowned by Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association — Miami East, Marysville and Harrison — with the Ohio High School Athletic Association set to contest a state tournament for the first time in March.
Licking Valley freshman Addison Justice was the lone Panther competing, but she made her mark. She finished 4-1 at 130 pounds to place fifth, losing to Westerville North’s Melania Szawranskyj, the eventual champion, in pool wrestling.
“Technique is always better than just overpowering someone,” said Justice, but she did plenty of that too, earning three of her four pins in less than a minute.
Justice practices with several of Valley’s standout lightweights on the boys team, but she said she made sure her mind-set did not change Wednesday. She was looking for redemption after having a “horrible” day at Watkins in the middle school tournament a year ago.
“I am just trying to get better at it. The guys are no joke. They have gotten stronger since last year, so I am just trying to push myself to be stronger,” Justice said. “There isn’t really a difference to me. It’s just wrestling a person. I don’t see a difference in guys and girls.”
Seeman at 125, and a pair of Watkins wrestlers matched Justice’s fifth-place finish. Watkins junior Meagan Justice at 105 and sophomore Zahkia Debose at 135 each rebounded from pool losses to dominate during the placement rounds to reach fifth.
Justice earned a pair of pins after losing to the eventual champion and runner-up. Debose earned three quick pins as she wore a smile that only grew after sophomore Averil Sites recorded a pin at 145 to earn her first career win, drawing one of the biggest cheers of the day.
“I love my school, and I want them to succeed the most, not just as individuals but as a team,” Debose said. “Seeing new girls is the most exciting part.”
That is an atmosphere coach Matt Kennedy has helped foster. As a young assistant coach at his alma mater, he has found his niche with an emerging girls program.
“The girls are cheerful and fun to be around. It’s really enjoyable,” Kennedy said. “As it becomes a bigger sport, the technique goes up. The skill level goes up. The intensity goes up. It’s not girls wrestling anymore. It’s just wrestling.”
Heath had five wrestlers competing, and senior Taryn Gamble has been a quick study as a first-year competitor. Gamble, a soccer standout, finished 3-2 with three pins in her first tournament, placing sixth at 125 after falling to Seeman.
“Wrestling with girls is a whole different ball game,” Gamble said. “I am a little more nervous because I just feel like there is a big competition between the girls. So far, it’s amazing.”
Junior Journey Clair also finished 3-2 and placed sixth at 155, and sophomore Megan DeVito finished 2-3 and placed 11th at 120. Sophomore Mikayla Sowers and Jasmyn Gamble each competed at heavyweight for the Bulldogs.
Taryn Gamble said Heath’s boys have not only been strong practice partners but also a great support system. Gamble frequently spars with freshman Zayne Presley but also steps up in weight on occasion against sophomores Jahki Royster and Braden Metz.
“The guys just boost your confidence a lot and are super encouraging,” Gamble said. “They really want to see us win.”
Seeman won twice by pin before falling to Harrison’s Raegan Briggs, a reigning state champion. She rebounded to earn two more pins, including her fifth-place battle with Gamble when she was able to reverse Gamble and get the pin in the second period.
“Wrestling boys, you learn how to use your muscles more and when to take shots,” Seeman said. “When I am wrestling girls, I can hit the moves way faster and way harder because boys are so much stronger. It’s crazy.”
Crabtree finished 2-2 to place sixth at 100 for the Hornets. Her pool loss came to Jackson sophomore Makennah Craft, a reigning state champion.
That is a place Licking County girls dream of eventually reaching. It seems a long way off, but the sport locally is undergoing a meteoric rise in just a few short years.
Watkins has more than 20 girls in its youth program, and five eighth-graders this season means the possibility of filling most of the weight classes next season at the high school level. Harrison,…