The St. James wrestling team heads to the Missouri State Wrestling Championships on Thursday. In total, three Lady Tigers have qualified to take part in the first ever Girls Championship, while two Tigers will head to the annual tournament.
The Lady Tigers have had a strong season, in particular. Despite only having three wrestlers, St. James was ranked as high as third in the State this year. This season has been a wild change of pace for Kaylynn Crocker and Heather Pankey, who started their high school careers just wrestling against the guys. Now that they've had a devoted girls season, their confidence is at an all time high. Crocker enters the State Meet with a girls record of 11-1, adding in 13 wins against guys, while Pankey comes in with a girls record of 13-1 with 17 wins against boys.
"I think (wrestling guys) has honestly made me a tougher wrestler than I would've been just wrestling girls," said Crocker. "Before Districts, I was still pretty nervous like I was when I was wrestling in the guys District, but my mentality was completely different. I knew I was wrestling girls, so it shouldn't be as hard as wrestling guys. I was a little more calm."
Pankey echoed those sentiments.
"(This season) has been pretty amazing. I like the change to wrestling girls. Most of the girls around here have just wrestled girls and I've already got the experience of wrestling guys and girls," said Pankey. "Seeing that I went (to Districts) with guys the last couple of years and this was the first year with girls, I thought maybe I've got it this year. I just went out there with a good mentality."
Crocker and Pankey both have a lot of experience in the St. James wrestling program, but they also had a new face with them in Emily Light. Crocker said having Light around this season was a really fun addition to the girls team.
"I love having (Light) on the team. Me and Heather wrestle completely different. Heather is more of a defensive wrestler and I feel like I'm more of an offensive wrestler, but having Emily, we both kind of get to push our wrestling onto her, so she's kind of like taking the best of both of us," said Crocker. "I feel like Emily is my little baby and we're just creating her as a wrestler. I love having younger people on the team."
This year has been a whirlwind for Light, but she has had a lot of fun coming in and getting to wrestle in the first official girls season as a freshman and qualify for State.
"It's really exciting. All of the support from everyone has been great," said Light. "(Crocker and Pankey) Are really helpful. I don't think I would be where I am without them, honestly."
With a great regular season behind them, the St. James girls come into the State Meet with high expectations. Crocker and Pankey both enter the State Tournament as two of the top seeds in their weight class and will each have first round byes after winning their District. Light, who finished the season with a girls record of 7-8 to go along with three wins against the guys, finished second in the District and as the bar set high, as well. Crocker and Pankey are both shooting to become the first State Champions in St. James history and that's a very exciting prospect for the experienced duo.
"It's my senior year, I want to go out there and get the championship, since we've never had one before at St. James," said Pankey.
Crocker has the same goals.
"I'm hoping to get first place. I know it's going to be a rough match, because I've already wrestled the first ranked wrestler in the State and she beat me pretty good," said Crocker of a potential championship match against Troy's Autumn Flanigan, who enters the State Meet 19-0. "I'm just hoping to push through an entire match and win by decision if anything. If I can get a pin, that'd be pretty nice, but I know that's less likely."
While Light is just a freshman, she's setting goals of medalling, as well.
"I just want to place. It's what I'm looking forward to," said Light. "Hopefully third or higher."
The Lady Tigers have quickly made an impact on the mat in the first girls season and Crocker is glad that their years of hard work against the guys is finally paying off.
"I think it's pretty nice, because the last few years Heather and I have been busting our butts just wrestling guys and not being able to keep up. Now that we're with girls, we're kind of shining and it feels good to get the recognition that we deserve," said Crocker. "It makes me feel good when teachers come up and tell us they heard the girls team did really well and that we're all going to State. It feels pretty good to know that guys are tuning into wrestling this year."
While the girls are getting a lot of attention, the boys are also sending a pair to State. Zach Achterberg finished the season with a record of 22-12 and finished second in his District at 152. Despite only being a sophomore, Achterberg is one of the boys' most experienced wrestlers, which has been an interesting experience for him this season.
"I kind of feel like a teacher, just trying to help them get better," said Achterberg.
Achterberg isn't trying to set any expectations on his first trip to State. He just wants to see how he stacks up against the best competition Class 2 has to offer.
"I'm just excited to wrestle juniors and seniors and see how good I am against them," said Achterberg.
Joining Achterberg is another sophomore in Frank Parsons. This is Parsons' first season in the St. James wrestling room and he's really excited to see how far he's come since his first match.
"(The young boys on the team) have all gotten a lot better since the start of the season. We were all super bad," said Parsons on the beginning of the season. "I guess I've gotten a lot better myself, I mean, I made it to State.
"I was hoping (to qualify for State), but I didn't think it was going to happen because I started off my season really rough," continued Parsons. "I didn't have like any wins for three or four tournaments, but I started figuring stuff out and started bringing my own confidence up and getting better. It was super amazing to get my first win and from there I'm just getting more and more."
Parsons enters the State Meet with a record of 19-23 and finished third in his District at 120. He's mainly looking to continue to improve during the tournament, but he's still shooting to find his way to the podium.
"I wanna try to make myself better. A lot of the guys at State are pretty tough and I want to at least get up to third place," said Parsons.
The boys will kick off the day bright at early at 9 a.m., while the girls have the morning off. The girls portion of the first day is slated to start at 2 in the afternoon.