The evolution of a sport (Part 1): Seneca girls bring home medals from state wrestling tournament | Sports

SENECA, Mo. — When future state champion Isabella Renfro started wrestling in middle school, she was the only woman on her team.

“When I was in eighth grade… I had to compete against the boys.” Renfro recently recalled.

Renfro, now a junior and new state champion at 190 lbs. for Seneca High School, comes from a wrestling family and is between her brothers in age, freshman Jace Renfro (190 lbs.) and senior Lincoln Renfro (175 lbs.).

Both brothers are accomplished in their own rights and also qualified for the state this year. Renfro said her brothers had a lot to do with getting into wrestling.

“I was just sick of them beating me up all the time,” laughed Renfro. “I wanted to be big and strong like them, so I started wrestling.”

Seneca started his all-girls wrestling program in 2018—that same year, the Missouri State High School Activities Association sponsored their first state championships for women wrestlers.

Renfro said she saw both an increase in the number of wrestling girls and an increase in the level of talent.

“It’s starting to get to the point of girls basketball or girls volleyball,” Renfro said. “Girls wrestling is starting to get its own spin and more and more people are becoming more comfortable coming out for it.”

Like Renfro, senior Liberty Cornell, who placed fifth at 155 pounds, became interested in the sport because her brother Sawyer Cornell was a wrestler.

“I have a brother who has been fighting forever,” Cornell said. “I was always his training partner, so once it (girl wrestling) started to grow, I wanted to get involved.”

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Seneca junior Louzella Graham, who competed in the 115-lb. State received a fifth medal. class, started wrestling at the urging of a middle school coach.

“I started going to the practice room a few times a week in my eighth year,” Graham said. “At one point I was like, ‘Oh damn, I really like that.’

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For Cornell, her favorite aspect of the sport is the people she has met.

“I’ve been to several wrestling camps and I’ve been able to meet people from different states who like the same things I do,” Cornell said.

For Graham, it’s all about the camaraderie.

“I like going to the tournaments with my teammates,” said Graham. “Not just the girls, but the boys too. It’s just fun.”

These Seneca girls said they train with the boys.

“We practice in the same room as them, but we only roll around with the guys sometimes,” Renfro said. “It’s pretty intimidating. I wrestle with guys who are older and taller than me and who have wrestled longer than me for 10 years. It definitely challenges you in a way that you don’t get in your regular competitions.”

A consistent powerhouse in wrestling for decades, Cornell said the strength of the boys’ program at Seneca was a factor in her decision to continue in the sport.

“It was cool to see how big wrestling is in Seneca,” Cornell said. “I knew I would have a good background and good coaches who could teach me.”

It’s also been said that success breeds success, and for Renfro, she hopes the success of this trio will help grow the girls’ program at Seneca.

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“I definitely think our success in the state this year will make a lot more people feel confident and eager to get on the mat with us,” Renfro said. “We brought three girls to the state tournament and came home with three medalists. People that we’re friends with and the youth wrestlers are going to see that and be like, ‘Girls can do that and girls can be really good at wrestling.'”

Mentally tough

Seneca coach Jeff Sill said the program has consistently had six to eight girls on the team.

“This year we only had four,” Sill said. “But the girls come out and work just as hard as the boys. They’re doing the same training as the guys and they’ve done a great job just getting better and improving their technique.”

Sill said the most important quality for potential wrestlers is that they are mentally strong.

“You have to be versatile enough that you work hard and push yourself beyond where you think you can go to find out how tough you really are,” he said.

Sill added that he is proud that Seneca wrestling knows no gender lines.

“It carries over from our boys to our girls and from our girls to our boys,” Sill said. “We want these two programs to be intertwined and know that there’s a lot of pride, whether it’s a boy or a girl, that takes to the mat and we try to keep that tradition alive.”

Sill, who has coached Seneca Wrestling for 20 years, said he never really envisioned a girls’ wrestling program.

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“That’s something that’s really evolved over the past eight years,” Sill said. “In the last four years, girls’ participation in Missouri has really (exploded) and it’s great to see where it started and where they are now.”

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