PARK CITY — Two Junction City wrestlers traveled to Hartman Arena in Park City for the Division I Girls State Wrestling tournament and both returned home that evening state medalists.
109-pound freshman Laila Lesher and 138-pound junior Brooke Swango both finished among the top-six in their class. Lesher went 2-2 on the day and finished fifth while Swango went 0-3 and finished sixth. As a team, the Blue Jays finished 26th overall with 16 team points.
“I told the girls all day that it’s not easy to get here,” head coach Tyler Gonzales said. “I told them that they should just be proud of themself for getting here. They just needed to find a way to win one match to become a medalist.”
Lesher started off the day with a dominating, 13-4 major decision win over Olathe-North’s Catherine Duong.
“I was a little worried because I had never wrestled (Duong) before,” Lesher said. “It was a little nerve-wracking but once I got in there and got the win I calmed down.”
Unfortunately for Lesher, that win matched her up with Wichita North senior Dialeen French, the top-ranked wrestler in Division I at 109-pounds. French won by an 8-2 decision but Lesher put up quite a fight against a wrestler with the skill and experience of French. French would go on to take first in the 109-pound bracket.
“I’ve wrestled (French) prior to today but this was one of the best performances I’ve had against her,” Lesher said. “Even though I lost, it still helped build my confidence moving forward.”
That loss moved her into the consolation semifinal match versus Goddard-Eisenhower sophomore Lainie Burkhart, a wrestler who Lesher beat the week before at sub-state. The two seemed fairly evenly matched early on but once Burkhart got going, Lesher had no answer for her leading to a tech fall loss for the freshman in 3:26 with a final score of 20-4.
That left a match-up with Spring Hill freshman Julie Yoder, who upset the higher-ranked Duong in the opening consolation round to eventually propel her to the fifth-place match. Lesher had the match well within her grasp as the seconds ticked down in the third period, leading 11-4 before she found a way to finish Yoder off for good, pinning her after five minutes and securing a fifth-place finish and her second win of the tournament.
“It’s exciting,” Lesher said. “I’ve worked hard to get to this point and it’s only going to continue with club wrestling over the summer. But this is a big deal for me to be able to place as a freshman. I still have three years of high school wrestling ahead of me and that’s exciting.”
Swango got saddled with an incredibly tough match-up in an already tough weight class to start off the day. Kansas City-Piper’s Sara Lake came into state ranked first in Division I in the 138-pound weight class with a sterling 24-0 record. Despite a valiant effort from Swango, Lake’s skill and strength was just too much as she had the junior pinned in 59 seconds.
“If you look at Brooke’s bracket, it’s going to be hard to find a girl with more than four or five losses,” Gonzales said. “That shows the level of competition that she went up against. It was very tough.”
Swango got passed through the first consolation round thanks to an injury default forfeit by Dodge City’s Dayanara Garcia which guaranteed her a top-six finish which includes a medal and a place on the podium.
That forfeiture pitted Swango against the third-ranked wrestler in the state for the 138-pound weight class in Gardner-Edgerton’s Shelby Davis. Swango held tough through the first period but a pin by Davis came early in the second period, 2:12 into the match.
The loss dropped her to the fifth-place match versus Garden City’s Bethanie Cruz, another top-five wrestler in the state. Swango hung on for all three periods but ended her day with a 12-2 major decision loss dropping her to sixth-place for the 138-pound weight class.
“For Brooke going forward, it’s all about experience,” Gonzales said. “We’re going to keep working because you can see that she has plenty of potential considering she made it this far this year. She competed hard today and found a way to get on the medal stand and you can’t fault the kid for that.”
Both Swango, Lesher and all but one of the other sub-state qualifiers for the Blue Jay girls are underclassmen so they will be returning next season to make another run to the state tournament.
“It’s particularly exciting because the majority of the team are freshman, sophomores and juniors so for the most part we’re going to be bringing everyone back,” Gonzales said. “We’ll continue to build off of what we did last year and I think the girls today showed that Junction City is going to be back in this position next year and going forward from that.”