Benefield: El Molino wrestler rises to the challenge

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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.

“I ended up rolling over my thumb,” she said. “It was very swollen. I knew definitely something was wrong.”

She was put in a soft cast, had to modify all aspects of her workout and instead of wrestling her way into the national tournament, she had to apply her way in.

A medical waiver is an application of sorts, a resume of her most recent results. She was accepted.

Good call, Team California.

With her win in the 152-pound division Sunday, Ricioli became the third female wrestler from the North Bay to win at Fargo. Rancho Cotate grad Vickie Espinoza won the junior women’s title in 2016 at 198 pounds and Kelseyville grad Jasmin Clark won the cadet women’s 200-pound division in 2017.

“It was the most surreal moment,” Ricioli said of when the official raised her arm up in victory. “I imagined that happening for so long. I have had visions and dreams and I have worked for that, but when it actually happened it was ‘Wow, this isn’t me imagining this anymore. It’s really happening.’”

And ask her coaches and they’ll say Ricioli had better get used to that feeling.

Ron Wright said Ricioli’s rapid ascent through the ranks of the sport in a relatively short amount of time bodes well for her aspirations to be a state champ.

“There are some girls in school and underclassmen who are a level above Hannah, but she is catching them at a rapid pace,” he said. “There are some girls that are crazy good. Hannah’s ability to catch them is very real because she just keeps on working. Those kids have been wrestling since they were 5 years old.

“There is no limit.”

But there is, however, now a rather large spotlight on Ricioli. Winning a national title will do that to an athlete.

“Now that she is a national champ, she is going to have a target on her back,” Josh Wright said. “There are a lot of these girls she looked up to as a freshman and now she’s at their level.”

That sounds fine to Ricioli, who after winning a national title in the under-16 division went on to compete in the junior division starting Tuesday.

“She wasn’t originally supposed to wrestle in (the juniors). They offered it to her and she said ‘Yeah, I’ll wrestle that.’ Then she went off and won the U-16s,” Ron Wright said.

And clearly, she’s not afraid of a little work.

“Leading up to this tournament, she was asking for two-a-day practices,” Josh Wright said.

And in addition to her work ethic and grit, Ricioli’s climb in the sport can be put down, in part, to her smarts. She has a better-than-4.0 grade point average and is a quick study at practice, Josh Wright said.

“She picks up things pretty quick,” he said. “She’s really good at asking me and really going over it and asking, ‘Is this how you do it right?’”

Heading into her junior year, Ricioli is not shy about her goals.

I asked about the possibility of a state championship by the time she’s a senior. Yep, she said. But she’s gunning for that title as a junior, too. “Back-to-back” or “defending state champ” have nice rings to them.

But she knows what’s she’s up against even in her own section, let alone the state of California.

“People will ask, ‘Are you good?’” she said. “I say ‘I’m OK,’ because there is always someone better than you.

“When I lose a match, I know what I need to change, it’s evident in what I need to make myself better,” she said. “Even when you win, there are always things you can change, always things you can do to get better. It is all on you.”

And that is a big piece of what draws Ricioli to the sport.

“I like the individuality of the sport. You go out on the mat and you don’t have any teammates, you don’t have a helmet, you don’t have padding, you don’t have anything but your own ability. You can’t blame anyone else, you can’t make any excuses — you have to battle through it.”

Among the things Ricioli will have to battle in her junior season is an ever-brightening spotlight. If her performance in Fargo is any indication, she is up to the task.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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