Ariana Wolkerstorfer shows off her state championship medal and citation with West Carteret coach Kevin Smith. (Contributed photo)

CONCORD — The National Girls and Women in Sports Day is observed annually during the first week of February.

Ariana Wolkerstorfer celebrated it on Saturday, Feb. 6 by becoming the first county wrestler to win a state championship at the N.C. High School Athletic Association Women’s Wrestling Invitational.

The West Carteret senior captured the 113-pound B division by pinning Cox Mill’s Ava Ferrell in 5:14 at Carolina Courts in Concord.

Wolkerstorfer broke down as she had her hand raised by the ref, signaling she was the champ.

“Oh my gosh, I was crying so hard,” she said. “I had no idea I was going to react like that. It just hit me like a train. I’ve been working so hard, and it finally paid off.”

She made it a goal to win the gold medal at this time last year when she took third in the 106-pound class at the inaugural event.

“It was pretty awesome,” she said. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It was fantastic. I worked out more at practice, worked out more at the gym. I had a lot more discipline. I really wanted it to happen this year.”

Her determination at the event showed in her performance.

After a receiving a first-round bye – the B division was the more difficult of the two 113-pound classes with 14 wrestlers compared to six in the A division – Wolkerstorfer cruised through the weight class, pinning her three opponents while not giving up a single point.

“Not one point,” she said. “I didn’t expect that. I figured they would be close matches. I definitely didn’t expect that.”

She pinned Eastern Alamance’s Alaina Kunder (6-8) in 2:21 in the quarterfinal, Millbrook’s Amy Williams (9-5) in 1:59 in the semifinal and Ferrell (6-9) in 5:14 in the championship final. Wolkerstorfer is now 28-22 on the season.

“Unlike a lot of the other girls, she had almost 50 matches, and most of that was against male competition this season,” West coach Kevin Smith said. “I think that was a huge difference. She was just locked in. She’s always talking about it. She kept pointing to it all season. This was her event. She went out there focused, and I was impressed. I was thrilled for her.”

Her championship was even more impressive considering the growth of the event. The inaugural competition, held in Winston-Salem in 2019, featured 81 female wrestlers. This year’s event saw 182 enter in the field and showcased some of the top high school female wrestlers in the state.

“It was insane,’ Wolkerstorfer said. “I was just in shock. And the girls were a lot better this year. I saw a lot more talent because a lot more girls knew about it this year. It was a big difference.”

According to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in 2018-2019, girls wrestling is booming.

There were 21,124 participants in 2018-19, an increase of 4,562 athletes from the year before, representing a tremendous 27.5-percent increase. The number of schools with girls wrestling climbed to 2,890, an increase of 539 schools. That marked a 22.9-percent increase from the previous year.

“I’ve been in wrestling for 28 years, and that (tournament) was great to see,” Smith said. “It was awesome. It’s exploded. Good for them. Hopefully, they can have their own teams, their own conferences, their own (dual-team) state tournament. That is where it’s headed. It will take a while, but the way it’s growing, it may get there before some people think.”

It is believed the numbers have continued to rise due to the introduction of women to Olympic wrestling in 2004 and the rise of women in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). At the 2016 Olympic Games, Helen Maroulis became the first-ever gold medalist for the U.S. in women’s wrestling.

Wolkerstorfer is one of just two female wrestlers in the county, joined by Croatan freshman Angelica Steffy (8-23).

“I noticed more freshman girls this season, and I think they have more at the middle schools too,” she said. “I think it’s going to get much, much bigger. There are a lot more opportunities for girls.”

Trying out for wrestling in high school probably wasn’t too big of a surprise to those that know Wolkerstorfer. Her mom wrestled as a high school freshman, her father wrestled, as did her uncles and grandfather. And her aunt is a bodybuilder and fitness model.

She fell in love with the sport as a junior when she got plenty of mat time after limited wrestling in her first two seasons. She went 1-0 as a freshman and 5-2 as a sophomore before putting up a 23-17 record last year.

Her dedication level went up a notch this season.

“I drilled with teammates who were significantly bigger than me, 120 (pounds), 126, 132, just so I could build that strength so that when I did wrestle someone who was 113, or the girls, I would have the advantage in strength,” she said. “I was constantly training.”

A standout cross country runner in the fall, who was the 3A Coastal Conference runner-up with a time of 19 minutes, 12 seconds on the 3.1-mile course and an all-regional runner with a fifth-place standing, she entered the season in the best shape of her life.

“She was still coming to practice during cross country season,” Smith said. “She put her time in, double time. She kept working hard. I saw the improvement, not just in the technique, but in her toughness, her strength.”

She continued wrestling in the spring after last season and took part in the summer camp.

Smith reported her work paid off despite going up a weight class, moving from the 106-pound class to 113.

“That is a pretty big jump, especially going against boys, but she handled it,” he said. “Because she had been lifting, and with her running, she had great conditioning. She’ll push it for the whole match. She beat some boys in the third period because she was in better shape than they were. She’s a gamer. I never count her out.”

Despite her wrestling career coming to an end this month, she’s not done with the sport. It’s in her blood.

A standout student with a 3.23 GPA, she is leaning toward accepting a cross country and track and field scholarship from UNC-Pembroke – she was fourth in the east region as a freshman pole vaulter and third as a sophomore – but she also sees herself starting a girls wrestling club in college.

“I’m not sure if it will be at the college or around here,” she said. “I would come back and lead it during the summers, on weekends. I’m definitely not finished with the sport. I want to be a wrestling coach after college.”

Wolkerstorfer said she has learned a lot of lessons in her foray into the world of wrestling, the most important of which is to never be afraid to try something new.

“Girls can do whatever they want if they put their heart into it,” she said. “Anybody can, really. It just takes hard work and discipline.”

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