When a couple of girls showed up for wrestling tryouts before the 1989-90 season, Evanston Hall of Fame coach Elias George wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea.
You’ve come a long way, baby.
On Saturday, junior Ariana Flores and senior Alize Ramirez earned the right to represent the Orange and Blue at the first-ever Illinois High School Association girls wrestling state finals by claiming top four finishes at the Evanston Sectional tournament.
Flores, the runner-up at 110 pounds, and Ramirez, fourth at 155 pounds, made history for a program that usually has had at least a couple of female participants over that 30-year stretch. Now, the pair can take advantage of a separate postseason path created by the IHSA last year but wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Flores and Ramirez answered when opportunity knocked and will compete Feb. 25-26 at the state finals at Grossinger Moters Arena in Bloomington.
They were among the 10 Wildkits entered at the sectional hosted at Beardsley Gymnasium Friday and Saturday involving more than 40 schools.
“I feel like the girls are finally getting a chance to show what they can do, and not be in the shadow of the boys,” said Evanston head coach Dillin Randolph. “When I wrestled here, we had a couple of girls on the team and we always respected them and loved having them around.
“If we didn’t respect them, they’d have probably come out there and beaten us.”
Flores, who will take a 14-5 won-loss record to state, scored pins against Elisa Brito of Chicago Senn (1 minute, 30 seconds) Kemely Trujillo of Chicago Rickover Academy (3:05), then edged Evelyn Simon of Hoffman Estates 7-6 in an overtime thriller to advance to the title bout.
She lost 8-2 to Huntley sophomore Taylor Casey, but now she – and every other Wildkit female hopeful going forward – can look at the Wall of Fame featuring Evanston’s state champions she sees every day before practice and envision herself joining that elite group some day.
“We only had three girls on the team when I was a freshman, and it’s so great to have almost a full lineup [for each weight class] now and that it’s an official [IHSA] sport,” said Flores, who competed for the boys squad at 113 last winter at the varsity level. “Here at ETHS the wrestling community has been super supportive of us.
“I definitely expected to be a state qualifier this year. I’ve always thought it would be so cool to be up on that Wall of Fame some day. That’s always been my goal, to win a state championship.”
Flores had to survive a tough challenge in the semifinals. She led Simon 5-2 after two periods, but the Hoffman Estates grappler battled back for a 6-6 tie in the final seconds of regulation.
Then, remarkably, Simon made a strategic decision that backfired. She allowed Flores to escape in the final few seconds of the first OT for the go-ahead point, apparently confident that she could take down the Evanston junior in the second OT.
Flores fought her off and no more points were scored in the last 30 seconds.
“The coaches are always saying that at some point you’re going to have a match that goes overtime, one that lasts longer than six minutes, and they worked us to prepare for it,” she said. “I just tried to push through it because my goal was to be first today, and this was the match that could set that up. I just held on because I didn’t want her to get 2 more points.
“This year I think I’m better on getting angles and position. I used to not position myself very well, just hoping for takedowns and not setting it up the way I should. And now my mentality is more go, go, go! Over the years coaches have told me to get tougher, that girls are mean.
“Now I’m mean – on the mat.”
“Maybe she let her go because she wanted a takedown, but Ari’s pretty tough to take down,” Randolph added. “Ari deserved to win that match. She’s improved so much, even this season. She’s miles ahead of where she was in November. She’s cleaned up a lot of the simple mistakes she used to make, and now she never really beats herself.”
Ramirez, a senior competing for the first time after helping the ETHS field hockey team to a record season, split her four matches at 155. She eliminated Jessica Domian of Maine South, was pinned by eventual champion Valeria Rodriguez in the first period, but bounced back to punch a ticket to state with a 6-2 triumph over Mailei Hudec of Crystal Lake Central in the back draw.
Buffalo Grove’s Julianna Conroy defended Ramirez well in the third place match on her way to a 6-3 win. All 3 of Ramirez’s points came via escapes.
Ramirez was recruited by boys head coach Rudy Salinas out of his Adventure Education class and no qualifier wore a bigger smile than the Wildkit senior Saturday.
“I lost the first two matches I wrestled this year, but after the third match all I wanted to do was win, win, win,” she said. “It’s so much fun wrestling all kinds of girls. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t think I’d make it this far. The [wrestling] culture is so great here and everyone is just like family. I think it’s great that we’re pushing girls to wrestle more.”
Ramirez, now 15-10 overall, punished Domain physically in Friday’s first match, forcing her to default due to a concussion.
“Technique-wise, I’ve become a lot better at snapping down and stuffing the head [of her foes],” she said. “When I do that it really makes them uncomfortable, and if I’m doing it right, it gets them tired too. I was already up 9-0 [in the first period] when she had to stop.”
Ramirez’s influence off the mat has been almost as vital to Evanston’s success as her prowess on the mat, according to Randolph.
“Alize established herself as a vocal leader the minute she walked into the practice room,” he said. “She’s become the heart and soul of this team and I wish I’d had her for all four years. She’s optimism personified and she gives the other girls confidence.”
Ramirez is one of eight first-year competitors in Randolph’s lineup this year, and most of them will return next season. Also suiting up for the Wildkits at the sectional were nonqualifiers senior Liz Escobar, 0-2 at 115; sophomore Priscilla Hartwell, 0-2 at 120; freshman Coco Herro, 0-2 at 125; junior Elizabeth Paredes, 2-2 at 130; sophomore Carmen Tracy-Amoroso, 1-2 at 135; junior Sophie Brown, 1-2 at 145; junior Nadia Himrod, 1-2 at 170; and junior Ashland Henson, 0-2 at 190.