Benefield: El Molino wrestler rises to the challenge
Before she was a third-place finisher as a sophomore at the North Coast Section meet last February, before she finished sixth at the CIF state meet a week later and before she became a folkstyle All-American twice over at the U.S. Marine Corps Cadet and Junior Folkstyle National Championships in March, El Molino High School wrestling co-coach Josh Wright knew there was something special about Hannah Ricioli.
After weights, after conditioning, after head-to-head wrestling, Ricioli would regularly ask for more. She asked if Wright would mind staying after the Lions’ practice so she could do extra sets of weights or work on technique. After all, she had to make up for lost time.
Ricioli, now heading into her junior year, had never wrestled when she got to El Molino two years ago. But she had a background in martial arts — jiu-jitsu and karate — as well as boxing, so soon enough she found herself drawn to El Molino’s wrestling room. Still, she was a novice.
Wright remembers her as naturally strong with a good sense of her body and how to move on the mat.
“And she was tough,” he said. “She could handle working out with the boys. She could handle it. She would really get after it and she didn’t really care. She would wrestle hard, she would practice hard.”
And her trajectory in the sport, after just two years, is remarkable.
The athlete who 24 months ago had never participated in this sport on Sunday was crowned national champion at 152 pounds at the 2019 U.S. Marine Corps Cadet and Junior National Freestyle Championships in Fargo, North Dakota.
“She’s a second-year wrestler,” said El Molino’s co-coach Ron Wright, who is Josh’s dad. He was almost chuckling when he said it.
She’s new to it and she has — for better or worse — been forced to come up through the grinder of girls wrestling that is the North Coast Section.
The section is one of the toughest in California for girls. She qualified as a freshman but went 0-2. She placed third last season as a sophomore in the 150-pound division. She was seeded eighth at the state meet but wrestled her way to a sixth-place finish.
In March, she became an All-American twice over after finishing seventh in cadets and eighth in juniors at the U.S. Marine Corps Girls Folkstyle Nationals in Oklahoma City.
Her reaction to all of that? Mildly disappointed. Although she states it in the most humble terms, Ricioli wants more. Finishing sixth at the state meet when she was the eighth seed?
“I wanted to do more than what was expected,” she said. “Sixth wasn’t first. It was better than the set expectation, but it wasn’t first.”
Denied a first-place finish at state, Ricioli nailed it at a national meet. And that was after she had to be granted a medical waiver to enter after spraining her thumb and missing the qualifying tournament in the spring.
She was working on a move called — get this — the gut wrench, in a crowded practice space, when she put out her hand to keep herself from rolling into a pair of wrestlers working out next to her.