By Steve Millar
After becoming one of the first girls wrestlers ever to win a sectional championship in an Illinois High School Association state series, Morton junior Leilany De Leon was blown away by the moment.
“It’s history,” De Leon said. “I still can’t believe it.”
That was a common theme Saturday at the Andrew Sectional – one of four sectionals in the state that marked the start of the first IHSA girls wrestling state series.
Many of the tournament’s most successful wrestlers were just as excited about the tournament itself – and the fact that there were so many girls wrestling – than with the fact they had just won a championship.
“When I was a freshman, I would see girls on teams with only one or two girls and then these teams started growing,” Morton senior Jennifer Villagomez said. “It makes me so happy.”
It was a big day for Morton, which qualified nine for the inaugural girls wrestling state meet, set for Feb. 25-26 at Grossinger Motors Arena in Bloomington.
Villagomez (110), De Leon (120) and senior Karla Topete (130) were sectional champs for the Mustangs.
Also qualifying for state for Morton were Ximena Juarez (2nd, 125), Neida Arreola (3rd, 115), Diana Rodriguez (3rd, 190), Aseel Jadallah (3rd, 235), Paris Flores (4th, 100) and Faith Comas (4th, 135).
Homewood-Flossmoor was just behind Morton with eight state qualifiers, led by champions Attalia Watson-Castro (135) and Ini Odumosu (190). Also qualifying for the Vikings were Ava Anderson (2nd, 100), Nina Hamm (2nd, 115), Grace Gibbs (3rd, 140), Kristen Roberts (4th, 155), Madison Skowronski (4th, 170) and Jocelyn Williams (4th, 235).
Oak Park-River Forest had six qualifiers: Keydy Peralta (1st, 145), Trinity White (1st, 170), Bella Tyma (2nd, 135), Sarah Epstein (2nd, 235), Bentley Hills (3rd, 100) and Tiffany White (4th, 190).
Andrew co-op, which also features wrestlers from fellow District 230 schools Sandburg and Stagg, did not have any champions but also qualified six.
They were Avery Santiago (2nd, 140), Ava McGuire (2nd, 145), Emma Akpan (2nd, 170), Mickaela Keane (2nd, 190), Katherine Cygan (4th, 125) and Alyssa Keane (4th, 130).
Many programs had their moments to shine as champions came from 10 different schools: Morton, H-F, Oak Park-River Forest, T.F. South, Lincoln-Way Central, Bowen, Coal City, Chicago Washington, Oak Forest and Curie.
Lincoln-Way Central’s Gracie Guarino summed up the day by echoing the thoughts of many of her fellow competitors.
“It feels like a dream,” Guarino said.
Here are the stories of the individual champions at the Andrew Sectional:
100 – Dutchess King, T.F. South
King, a senior, has been wrestling throughout her high school career and was grateful to have an IHSA state series happen before she graduated.
“I’ve been wrestling all these years and wishing I could go to regionals and sectionals and they didn’t have this back then,” King said. “For it to come true for once, I’m proud of everyone here. It’s a male-dominated sport. You don’t see females doing this.
“I didn’t even have to win to be happy today.”
King (17-10) pinned Morton’s Paris Flores in the semifinals then beat H-F’s Ava Anderson by a 16-4 major decision in the finals.
Anderson (15-7) sealed her trip to state with a 7-1 semifinal win over Oak Park-River Forest’s Bentley Hills.
Hills bounced back to take third with a 2-1 win over Flores.
Flores had sealed her spot at state in the blood round by pinning Westinghouse’s Kimani Glasper.
105 – Gracie Guarino, Lincoln-Way Central
Guarino (23-14) has been a mainstay in the lineup for a successful Knights team and has held her own against boys all season, so she was confident coming into Saturday.
Guarino got off to a heck of a start, pinning all three of her opponents in less than a minute.
She finished it off with a 51-second pin of Reed-Custer’s Judith Gamboa in the finals.
“There were a little bit of nerves, but I was pretty confident the whole way through,” Guarino said. “I knew I was going to do good. I just did everything I know to do.”
Guarino has had big goals since she finished third at the IWCOA girls state meet in June as a freshman and is looking forward to the challenge that awaits her in Bloomington.
“It’s going to be tough, but I’m ready,” she said. “I’m very excited for it.”
Gamboa has a pair of pins on her way to the finals, finishing off Oak Forest’s Hanan Abdallah in 1:15 in the semifinals to clinch her trip to state.
Marine Leadership Academy senior Alani Barajas took third, pinning Abdallah in 3:01.
Abdallah, who finished fourth, came through with a pin of Oak Park-River Forest’s Ana Banuelos in the blood round to seal her state-qualifier status.
110 – Jennifer Villagomez, Morton
Villagomez (14-1), a senior, beat Andrew’s Sophia Figueroa 7-3 in the quarterfinals and Hubbard’s Diana Cervantes 6-4 in the semifinals before pinning Hillcrest’s Cha’Anna Kassim in 3:38 in the finals to become a sectional champion.
Villagomez said she fell short of making it to the IWCOA state meet in past seasons, so this was her redemption.
“I felt like this year I was ready to come forward after so many hard practices,” Villagomez said. “I feel like it was all worth it.”
Villagomez was just as excited about her teammates’ success as the Mustangs had nine state qualifiers.
“I feel like a proud mom since I’m one of the co-captains,” she said. “I feel so proud of everyone that they wrestled so hard and didn’t give up. I try to help them at practice and tell them, ‘Oh, do this,’ and to see them do it in matches makes me feel so proud of everyone.”
Kassim had two pins to reach the finals, including one in two minutes in the semifinals over Lincoln-Way Central’s Emily Peyton.
Cervantes and Peyton bounced back with big wins in the blood round to seal their trips to state.
Cervantes pulled out a dramatic 7-6 victory over the top seed, Oak Park-River Forest’s Camila Neuman. Peyton pinned Andrew co-op’s Sophie Figueroa.
Cervantes then pinned Peyton in 3:27 in the third-place match.
115 – Monica Griffin, Bowen
As Bowen’s only female wrestler, Griffin (17-3) has taken on and overcome many challenges.
“You have to be able to push through everything, even when you’re wrestling boys or girls,” she said. “You have to practice hard and just be dedicated to everything.”
Griffin dominated Saturday, pinning all three of her opponents, including H-F’s Nina Hamm in 1:07 in the finals.
A wrestler since fifth grade, Griffin was proud to compete in the historic event.
“They’re just now recognizing us females, so it’s like a relief,” she said.
Hamm had a pair of pins to reach the finals, including one in 2:42 over Morton’s Neida Arreola in the semifinals.
Arreola bounced back to take third, edging T.F. South’s Quincy Onyiaorah 3-1.
Onyiaorah won by 11-1 major decision over Hillcrest’s Ashli Dodson in the blood round to become a state qualifier.
120 – Leilany De Leon, Morton
De Leon (10-2) was able to outlast her opponents and finish them off late, with two of her three pins coming in the third period.
She pinned Kankakee’s Estefany Mendez in 5:22 in the finals.
De Leon, a junior, was convinced to try wrestling two years ago and is now hooked.
“My freshman year on cross country, there was a senior telling me all season to do wrestling,” De Leon said. “I decided I’d just try out for it. I wasn’t going to join the team, but all the seniors wanted me to and I was like, ‘I can’t leave.’
“Then I started doing it and I didn’t want to leave.”
Mendez had a pair of pins, including one in 1:17 in the semifinals over Curie’s Vanessa Torres.
Torres came back to take third with a pin of Riverside-Brookfield’s Eleanor Aphay in 2:56.
Aphay, who finished fourth, had sealed her trip to state by pinning Oak Park-River Forest’s Maria Diaz in the blood round.
125 – Carly Ford, Coal City
Ford (13-3), a senior, wishes she would have more than one chance to compete in an IHSA state series, but she is happy to experience it once.
“It feels pretty good,” she said. “I’ve obviously done IWCOA before, but I’m happy to be a part of this. I’m a senior, so I won’t get to do it again, but it’s great to see all the girls out here.
“I’m happy for all the girls who get to compete in future years.”
Ford had two pins on her way to the finals, then beat Morton’s Ximena Juarez with a technical fall, 18-3, in 5:28, in the championship match.
She is looking forward to the state meet.
“It feels like this is what I’ve worked for all four years,” Ford said. “Obviously it’s sad, because I’m a senior, so it’s my last meet, but I’m excited for it.”
Juarez earned a 6-2 win over Andrew co-op’s Katherine Cygan in the semifinals to clinch her spot at state.
Lincoln-Way Central’s Ashley Villa took third. After being pinned by Ford in the semifinals, she came back with two pins of her own, including one in 1:54 over Cygan in the third-place match.
Cygan, who finished fourth, outlasted Oak Park-River Forest’s Pearl Lacey in a high-scoring blood round match, prevailing 15-13.
130 – Karla Topete, Morton
Topete (14-1), a senior, had major decisions in her first two matches before pinning Oak Forest’s Sabrina Sifuentez in 1:07 in the finals to become Morton’s third champion of the day.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Topete said. “I’ve been wrestling since sixth grade and there was a time where there were no girls. So, aside from winning, just seeing all these girls is amazing.”
Topete said she was drawn in by her interest in another kind of wrestling as a kid.
“I liked the WWE,” she said. “My dad found a camp and we just went from there. I didn’t think it was going to be like this. I thought it was going to be a ring with stairs. But this is fun, too.”
Sifuentez had two pins on her way to a runner-up finish, including one in 1:41 over Wilmington’s Priscilla Prescott in the semifinals.
Lincoln-Way West’s Alaina Hollendoner, who lost 8-0 to Topete in the semifinals, came back to take third with a 5-1 win over Andrew co-op’s Alyssa Keane.
Keane pinned Prescott in the blood round on her way to finishing fourth.
135 – Attalia Watson-Castro, Homewood-Flossmoor
It was an exciting day for the Watson-Castro family as Attalia’s brother, Haku, also qualified for state with a fourth-place finish at 182 at the Class 3A Granite City Sectional.
“We’ve been planning on this since freshman year, so now that it’s actually happening, it’s really cool,” Attalia Watson-Castro said. “It’s history in the making. This was our only chance to do it since he’s a senior this year.”
Attalia Watson-Castro (13-1), a junior, pinned all three of her opponents, finishing it off her finals match in 2:31 against Oak Park-River Forest’s Bella Tyma.
“The key is to just have fun,” Attalia Watson-Castro said. “That’s the main thing. I feel like a lot of girls overthink it. If you have fun, everything comes naturally.”
Tyma beat Andrew co-op’s Lana Shuaibi 9-5 in the semifinals to seal her trip to state.
After being pinned by Attalia Watson-Castro in the quarterfinals, Kankakee’s Alejandra Cornejo came back with three pins of her own, including one in 2:58 to beat Morton’s Faith Comas in the third-place match.
Comas pinned Back of the Yards’ Gisell Patino in the blood round.
140 – Solmariely Rodriguez, Chicago Washington
Rodriguez (5-1), a senior, let out a jubilant reaction after pinning Andrew co-op’s Avery Santiago in 39 seconds in the finals.
“I was shocked when I got the pin,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was running around everywhere.”
Rodriguez, who had only wrestled in one other event before the sectional this season, looked to get to her offense quickly in the championship match.
“My coach told me to get out there and get aggressive,” she said. “I’m not really aggressive when I wrestle all the time. So, I was like, ‘OK, go out there and start strong and try to push through.’
“She shot and I sprawled and then it just happened. It was like a dream.”
Santiago pinned Oak Forest’s Jade McDaniel in the semifinals on her way to the runner-up finish.
H-F’s Grace Gibbs, who dropped a tight 3-1 decision to Rodriguez in the quarterfinals, came back with three straight wins. She beat Phoenix’s Selena Lopez 4-1 in the third-place match.
Lopez, who finished fourth, pinned Oak Park-Forest’s Mayan Awaeli in the blood round to earn her spot at state.
145 – Keydy Peralta, Oak Park-River Forest
Peralta (15-2), a junior, cast aside her own doubts to become a sectional champion.
“It’s really inspiring,” she said. “I didn’t know that I was going to get here. Before this, I was really overthinking it and I didn’t think I was going to place. I gave it my all and now here I am.”
Peralta pinned both of her opponents, including Andrew co-op’s Ava McGuire in 1:56 in the finals.
McGuire pinned Back of the Yards’ Joselin Rodriguez in 1:11 in the semifinals on the way to her runner-up finish.
After being pinned by Rodriguez in the quarterfinals, Oak Forest’s Davia Lea turned the tables by pinning Rodriguez in the third-place match.
Rodriguez, the fourth-place finisher, sealed her spot at state by pinning Wilmington’s Skylar Ortiz in the blood round.
155 – Dajia Slaughter, Oak Forest
Slaughter (11-2), a sophomore, is pulling off a rare feat by competing in two sports in the same season.
She is also a member of the Bengals’ varsity basketball team.
“It’s not that hard if you put in the work for both, once you get your schedule put together,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter pinned both her opponents, including Wilmington’s Dezirae Yanke in 2:23 in the finals.
“It feels so great,” Slaughter said. “I came along way, so to get first is amazing. I was crying. I never get emotional about any sport. But I was like, ‘Oh my God, I just got first.’ There’s been a lot of hard work, dedication and tears put into this.”
Yanke, the runner-up, beat Evergreen Park’s Elliana Balderrama 4-0 in the semifinals.
Balderrama came back with a pair of pins, including one in 3:29 over H-F’s Kristen Roberts in the third-place match.
Roberts is nonetheless headed to state as the fourth-place finisher thanks to her pin of Andrew co-op’s Janae Vargas in the blood round.
170 – Trinity White, Oak Park-River Forest
Coming into the tournament undefeated, White (20-0) felt some pressure, mostly – she said – put on by herself.
“I feel like it’s so bad being undefeated because I just don’t want to lose,” she said. “But, you know, it’s whatever. I have the will to win and keep on going even when something bad happens like you take a bad shot or something.”
White, a sophomore, stayed perfect with two pins followed by a tight 3-1 win over Andrew co-op’s Emma Akpan in the finals.
White’s older sister, Tiffany – a senior – also advanced to state with a fourth-place finish at 190.
“I’m really happy,” Trinity White said. “I feel like all the hard work and going to practices, practicing with the varsity boys, it was all worth it. It makes me feel really good right now.”
Akpan had two pins on her way to a runner-up finish, including one in 2:27 over Hoopeston’s Jalyn Cobb in the semifinals.
After being pinned by White in the semifinals, Kenwood’s Myeisha Davis came back with two pins of her own, including one in two minutes over H-F’s Madison Skowronski in the third-place match.
Skowronski had pinned Oak Forest’s Bridget Munch in the blood round to punch her ticket to state.
190 – Ini Odumosu, Homewood-Flossmoor
Odumosu (21-5), a sophomore, is a first-year wrestler after she began looking for a new sport following her freshman year.
“As a kid, I remember wrestling with my cousins, playfully,” she said. “I played volleyball but I didn’t really like it. I thought about it and I was like, ‘I like sports that are competitive where I can control.’
“I heard about wrestling at H-F and I thought it was the perfect opportunity.”
Odumosu has certainly thrived in her first season. After pulling off a 7-2 overtime victory against Morton’s Diana Rodriguez in the semifinals, she edged Andrew co-op’s Mickaela Keane 3-1 in the finals.
Keane beat Oak Park-River Forest’s Tiffany White, who entered the match with a 25-0 record, 6-2 in the semifinals to secure her trip to state.
Rodriguez pinned White in the third-place match, while fourth-place finisher White clinched her state-qualifier status with a pin of Marine Leadership Academy’s Melanie Canales in the blood round.
235 – Aaliyah GrandBerry, Curie
GrandBerry (8-0), a sophomore and a first-year wrestler, was more than a little bit nervous heading into the sectional.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’
“Right now, this feels amazing.”
GrandBerry pulled off a tight, 3-1 win over Oak Park-River Forest’s Sarah Epshtein in the finals.
Epshtein had her own dramatic victory in the semifinals, 4-2 in overtime over H-F’s Jocelyn Williams.
Morton’s Aseel Jadallah pinned Oak Forest’s Jessica Komolafe in the blood round then was awarded third place via default due an injury to Williams.
Epshtein had her own dramatic victory in the semifinals, 4-2 in overtime over H-F’s Jocelyn Williams. Morton’s Aseel Jadallah pinned Oak Forest’s Jessica Komolafe in the blood round then was awarded third place via default due an injury to Williams.
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