Editor’s note: This article has updated to include photos from the awards podium at the Evanston Sectional tournament.

As the sport of girls wrestling progresses in the high school ranks and waves of new hopefuls enter the program at Evanston Township High School, maybe those future Wildkits will start to believe they can compete with the state’s elite.

Slowly but surely, the Wildkits are starting to win the confidence game.

ETHS senior Ariana Flores is on the podium in third place for 110 pounds at the Evanston Sectional tournament on Saturday, Feb. 11. Credit: Nemi Cooper

That’s one big reason that seniors Ariana Flores and Ashland Henson earned trips to the Illinois High School Association state with top four finishes at the Evanston Sectional tournament.

Flores finished third at 110 pounds and qualified for State for the second year in a row, winning five out of six matches. Henson, a relative rookie in the sport, posted a 3-2 record at 190 pounds on her way to a fourth place finish.

ETHS senior Ashland Henson has the fourth-place spot on the podium for 190 pounds in the Evanston Sectional tournament on Saturday, Feb. 11. Credit: Nemi Cooper

Negotiating the mammoth 58-school field of wrestlers at the sectional made the path much more difficult to advance along in the second year of postseason competition sponsored by the IHSA. The state finals will be held the weekend of Feb. 24-25 at Illinois State University.

Unlike last year, when some girls entered the postseason fray with only a handful of actual matches under their belts, the experience of a full season of dual meets and tournaments (and the expansion to 45 of the number of matches allowed) in 2022-23 definitely upped the level of competition.

That’s why it was so satisfying for ETHS head coach Dillin Randolph to see Flores and Henson keep their seasons alive for one more week.

“We got two qualifiers again, and two per year is nice,” said Randolph. “Of course I’d love to get more. But last year the entire state was basically first-year wrestlers, so this year some with that experience has come back. There are more teams now, too. I think everything got more difficult in terms of qualifying this year.

“Our biggest team weakness this year has been (lack of) confidence. But these past two days we wrestled confident as a team. We keep telling them that now they’re the team people should be afraid of,” he said, continuing: “Ashland, for example, comes into the tournament with one of the best records in her bracket (she was seeded fourth) and she’s still asking me if I think she can win any matches. I never questioned that – but I think today she finally started to believe in herself.

“It was great to see her acting with so much (competitive) fire. And it’s the same thing with Ari, when she’s aggressive, she has to realize she’s one of the top wrestlers in the state.”

Ariana Flores road to State

Flores was part of a history-making season a year ago, but her confidence took a hit when she started slow due partly to injuries the first half of the season. There was a lot on the senior’s plate off the mat, too, but she’s built her confidence back up to a championship level now.

She was pinned by Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School’s Nina Hamm in 2 minutes, 21 seconds in the quarterfinals Saturday morning, but came back with four straight victories in the consolation bracket, including a decisive 8-4 thumping of Hamm in the rematch between the pair in the third place bout.

Flores will take a 20-9 record to State, where she won one of three matches as a junior.

“It feels good – again,” Flores said. “Getting third place was important for me because I was fourth last year (at the sectional). I just went at her. Before I waited (to make any moves), but this time I knew I just had to go.

“My mindset was really not in the right place the first half of the season. I was second-guessing myself, but all those wins really helped with my confidence. And the competition is tougher now, so to me, this is a bigger accomplishment this year. After losing in the quarterfinals I knew it would be hard (to qualify), and I just had to keep pushing.”

Her freshman year she competed mostly versus boys her first two seasons. She said, “I’d sit back and look at these other girls and think about how good they are compared to me. But now? I think I have to consider myself one of those really good people. I definitely can see myself that way.”

Flores chalked up wins over Melany Corona of Chicago Military Academy-Bronzeville (fall in 55 seconds), Belinda Esparza of Deerfield High School (fall in 1:17), Autumn Turner of Round Lake  High School (fall in 3:54) and Mia Thomas of Phoenix Military Academy (fall in 3:01) before dominating Hamm the second time around.

“Overall, I think my shots (on offense) have been better,” Flores added. “My goal is to get that first takedown and always be the shooter out there in every match.”

The wrestling year for Ashland Henson

Henson, a late arrival to the sport, might be the most improved wrestler in the state of Illinois. The ETHS strongwoman will take a 23-9 won-loss record to the state tournament.

Ashland Henson wins a match Friday, Dec. 9, at ETHS. Credit: ETHS

She began her athletic career as a member of the ETHS school powerlifting team and just joined the wrestling program last January, barely in time to get on the mat for actual competition. “I think wrestling in the sectional last year, that was my second match of the year,” Henson recalled.

“I didn’t even know we had a girls wrestling team. A friend of mine told me about it, and once I tried it I really liked it. But I never thought I’d be able to make it to State. It feels really, really good.”

The powerfully built senior admitted to lacking confidence at times, just like Flores. 

“I just tried to focus on the basics, not the fancy moves. Just taking people down and pinning them,” Henson said. “For me, confidence is the hardest part of this. I psyche myself out, I think too much about it, and I get really anxious. But things usually turn out in my favor even when I’m like that.”

Henson advanced to the semifinals with pins against Brooklyn Jeffries of Hillcrest High School (0:35) and previously undefeated Krystal Thomas of South Shore International College Preparatory High School (2:52), before running into the eventual tournament champion, Ini Odumosu of Homewood-Flossmoor and suffering a 9-3 defeat.

In the consolation bracket, Henson had to overcome a slight mishap against Victoria Cruz of Evergreen Park Community High School. Midway through the first period of that match, Cruz reversed the ETHS grappler and scored a near fall that sent Henson injured to the mat. She regrouped and scored a fall in 4:55, then dropped a 7-0 decision to Josie Larson of Lakes Community High School in the match to decide third place.

Henson’s shoulder took the brunt of that hit from Cruz. “When I fell on it, there was a shock of pain and it made a weird noise,” she said. “But I wanted to keep going. I didn’t want to give up my spot (in the tournament).

“At State there will be some pressure on me because I want to show well for our team. But honestly, I’m just glad that I get to go. It’s been a lot of fun, a good run, and I think everyone should try wrestling. It’s a great sport.”

Two other Wildkit hopefuls, Natalie Graettinger at 145 pounds and Jereni Marshall at 235, were ousted in the consolation semifinals, just one win away from automatically advancing.

Graettinger, a junior, finished with a 20-17 season record after losing via fall to Maya Corea-Funes of Oak Forest High School in the third period. Marshall, a sophomore, split four matches – all four were decided by pins – on her way to a 14-8 finish in her first year of competing.

Seniors Elizabeth Paredes-Torres (120) and Nemi Cooper (125) ended on a high note with identical 3-2 tourney records for the Wildkits.

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  1. i think if you are going to write and article you should include a picture of the people you are writing about. not an old picture of someone who isn’t on the team anymore. this is not giving fair credit to the team this year and what they have been working hard for. also ariana flores placed 2nd last year not 4th, it would also be appreciated if you get the right facts written if you are going to write an article released to the public.

    1. Thank you for caring so much and reading the RoundTable. Because you would not be slightly angry with us if you didn’t care. I have corrected the picture, which did include one of this year’s player who is a state finalists but, as you said, another person not still on the team. (So, it was still a fine picture to use.) But I could not find and correct the error you mentioned. Is it in the quote from Flores, where she says “because I was fourth last year (at the sectional)?” Otherwise there is no other mention of her placing fourth.

      And finally, as for the pictures, last season one of our amazing volunteer high-level photographers who does this work on his own time, spent a lot of time photographing the team. He also made all the pictures he shot available to the athletes’ families — with no thought of compensation but rather, as a community gift. Yet, he was met with open hostility from a group of parents who complained to the coach and insisted he talk to the photographer. The arguments from the parents were extremely subjective and not offered in a kind or educational manner. Sports is something we choose to cover as it’s not really breaking news. But we want to highlight these amazing young people, who are so key to Evanston’s future. But since there are so many sports not covered well, we chose to send our photographers elsewhere this season. If there are parents on the wrestling team who would like to submit photographs to us, please contact me. We would love to continue highlighting these athletes. Thank you, Susy Schultz, editor (susy@evanstonroundtable.com)

      1. we would be more than happy to provide photos if we were asked to 🙂 as a team it is important to us that our efforts are portrayed to the public as well. a lot of our team finds the pictures to be inappropriate since they aren’t showcasing our wins as the article is describing. i have emailed you with pictures of the team that i hope you all would take the time to put in your articles.

        1. Thank you, Nemi, for your comment. I appreciate that not all the coverage we do is appreciated by those we are covering. We have included the podium picture you sent to me in the story. Thank you. But I do think it’s also important to note that sports — at any age but particularly at the high school level — is not only about winning. It is about building a team, supporting one another, figure out how to loose and then get up and get back into it. It is also about discipline, finding physical and mental strength as well as showing up. It is not easy at all. And I think the other two shots in that story, help to tell that story as well. There is absolutely no shame, nor judgement on our part in using those pictures. They are part of the story of that event. They show hard working athletes honing their sport — something that our pictures are also meant to highlight. I appreciate your thoughts and your help. Thank you. Susy Schultz, editor

          1. the round tables point is understood but not everyone sees it that way. after having a discussion with the rest of the team and especially the two girls you are covering we felt that the pictures were not appropriate and neither were the captions the photographer listed with them. we thank you for taking the time to cover our sport and changing the pictures to better represent the story that was being covering.

          2. Dear Nemi, I appreciate your note and I am grateful for you taking the time to communicate. I would suggest to you when you say that “not everyone sees it that way,” that the group you are talking to is not a group that understands journalism. It has been my experience that athletes always prefer pictures of victory, but as journalists we tell the whole story. And once we have been given permission to cover a story, whether it is a game or something else, we almost never give the subjects the chance to approve the contents of the story or the pictures. We try to fact check vigorously but if we depended on our subjects approval before publishing material, our content would be censored. We have gone the extra mile at the RoundTable with the wrestling team because the SPJ Code of Ethics, which we follow, explicitly directs us to try and do no harm to young people and feel that is important. If you and any other members of the team with your coach or athletic director, would like me and our lead photographer to talk to you about these issues and answer any other questions or address further complaints, we would gladly do so. We think it is also vital that you understand this issue is bigger than your objection to one or two photographs but goes to the heart of the role of a free press in our democracy. Again, I am grateful you took the time to tell us what upset you and that in this case, we could find a remedy. You voice does matter. Susy Schultz, editor