Benefield: Empire wrestlers impress at national girls tournament

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Casa Grande’s Lillian McCoy won the North Coast Section wrestling title in the 235-pound division back in February but couldn’t make that translate into a CIF state title in Bakersfield, where she came in fifth.

The junior more than made amends at the U.S. Marine Corps Girls Folkstyle Nationals in Oklahoma City last weekend.

McCoy won the 225-pound weight class to win the designation of All-American and national champion.

“She’s always trying to do the lightweight (moves) because she can. Body-wise, she is very athletic,” said Casa Grande wrestling coach Louis Chavez.

“I love Lilly,” Team California head coach Malinda Ripley said. “She is one of the hardest-working young ladies I see out there. And being a heavyweight wrestler, she is also one of the most athletic ones I have ever seen.”

Case in point: McCoy currently sits atop the Redwood Empire rankings in shot put and is tied for sixth in the North Coast Section. She’s also ranked 10th in the Redwood Empire in the discus.

Her finish in Oklahoma City was tops among area athletes but by no means the only impressive result earned by a local athlete. Eleven junior wrestlers from the North Coast Section won All-American designations by finishing in the top 8. One, El Molino sophomore Hannah Ricioli, doubled — earning All-American designations in both the cadets and juniors competitions.

“The North Bay for girls wrestling is off the charts,” said Joe Fernandez, coach of the Upper Lake wrestling program and father of senior Adriana Lopez, a state champion. “They are all hammers.

“The girls that are coming out of here are just very, very good,” he said. “A lot of them are country girls. They are extremely tough girls. They are just hungry.”

Count Lopez, wrestling at 122 pounds, in that category. But despite coming into Oklahoma City riding a state championship title — the first individual state title ever for any athlete from Lake County — Lopez came up short at nationals.

“Coming off a state championship, she thought she was going to win the world,” Fernandez said. “She definitely came in full steam ahead.”

Lopez was ready and brimming with confidence, according to Ripley.

“She has so much technique,” she said. “It blows my mind sometimes to watch her go out there.”

And then, in an early round, Lopez pinned herself. Fernandez said Lopez was dominating, but when she got her opponent in a cradle the ref signaled a pin after he said both of Lopez’s shoulders hit the mat.

Relegated to the non-title bracket, she had to keep wrestling. That’s where she really shined, according to Ripley.

“She can allow that call to make her fold or she can move on, have short-term memory and get through the tournament and then go digest what happened,” she said. “This is where your heart comes in and your mental toughness comes in — you have to wrestle your way back.”

It wasn’t easy.

“It was really important to me. It was my last year to win it,” Lopez said. “This is not the outcome I had in mind.

“Stuff happens in wrestling; there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “I just had to come back and wrestle hard the rest of the tournament.”

Her dad was philosophical.

“This is the second time this season that she has gotten called for pinning herself,” he said. “It’s learning curves. You learn more from losing than you do from winning.”

Up next, for Lopez at least, is more national competition before she heads to Campbellsville University in Kentucky, an NAIA program, in the fall.

Other top finishes include Kelseyville senior Jasmin Clarke’s fourth-place finish in the 180-pound category after her gutsy run in the state tournament earned her a second-place medal.

El Molino’s Ricioli took seventh in cadets and eighth in juniors after finishing in sixth in the CIF state tournament.

“In the practice room, she is a beast,” Ripley said of Ricioli.

Both Ricioli and Rancho Cotate’s Hollie Espinoza work out in the high school offseason at Albany High, where Ripley coaches.

“That kid is so open to feedback,” she said. “She goes above and beyond.”

While California has long been a dominant force in girls wrestling, Ripley is seeing a change in the quality from Northern California, specifically.

“The North Coast Section did phenomenal in CIF,” she said. “It used to be the south was capitalizing on numbers and results. I feel like the north is a little bit above the game right now. I do think the north is coming up.”

Coming up and coming out on top.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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