The St. James wrestling team made history over the weekend at the Missouri Men's and Women's State Championships. Kaylynn Crocker and Heather Pankey became the first female wrestlers in school history to earn medals at State Meet with third place finishes.
Medals are tough to come by at State, but they're at even more of a premium at the first ever Missouri Women's State Championship. The boys hand out medals to the top six spots, while the girls only get medals for the top four, so Crocker and Pankey were on high alert.
Crocker started the weekend with a bye, but made short work of her first match. She pinned Kirksville's Lydia Nelson in the second period to advance to the semifinals. Crocker said stepping onto that match for her first match was intimidating, but she settled in once the match started.
"It was really nerve-racking. I was so nervous for my first few matches. I only had one match the first day and when I was wrestling, I knew she was going to be kind of tough because she made it to State," said Crocker. "After I realized I was the better wrestler, all of the nerves faded."
Unlike the boys, Crocker still needed one more win to secure a medal and she ran into a tough matchup against Mckenzie Gilreath from Maysville. Crocker had Gilreath on her back a couple of times, but couldn't quite get the pin. She was eventually pinned with 25 seconds left to go in the match.
"She was stronger up top," said Crocker of Gilreath. "I'm not used to them being able to able to keep up with me strength-wise. There's been a few matches, but not a whole lot. I was just so nervous once I realized she was good at tying up and I kind of choked on it a little bit. I lost my flow and it made me more nervous."
Crocker was able to bounce back after the loss, as she started the day on Saturday with a matchup against Washington's Mia Reed. Crocker made quick work of Reed, getting a pin in the second period to secure a spot on the stand. She finished the weekend on a high note, getting another pin against Carrolton's Aiva Mayer to finish in third.
"It was so rewarding," said Crocker of getting the win in the third place match. "I was so excited...I got that pin on a move that has a lower winning ratio, so once I got it I was like 'heck, yeah, I've never run that move before, that's even better.'"
Crocker follow's in her brother, Mikey's footsteps. The elder Crocker finished third at State in each of the previous two seasons and now Kaylynn follows suit. She's excited to head into the offseason as she prepares to take the next step on the podium as a senior next year.
"I plan training over the summer, training harder than I did last summer and taking that first place next year," said Crocker.
Pankey had a similar road at State. After a first round bye, Pankey only needed 28 seconds to get a pin against Bethany Howard from Versailes. She ran into Esther Han of Holt in the semifinals and ran into a bit of bad luck. Pankey was dominating the match, as she nearly pinned Han multiple times in the first and second period, but couldn't quite finish it off. Han was able to turn the tide in the second period and get a reversal that put Pankey on her back and send the St. James jsenior into the consolation bracket. Pankey's only two losses on the season were against the now undefeated State Champion from Holt.
"I went out there ready to beat her and we went into the second period and I shot and she caught me, she threw me and then I got stuck," said Pankey. "In the first period, I was in control the whole time and I was up and then she stuck me."
Pankey bounced right back after the loss and went on an absolute tear. She only needed a combined 50 seconds to get pins over Park Hill South's Finley Bickford and Fort Osage's Tess Kinne on her way to a third place finish.
"After that match I kind of got down on myself and told myself I was done with wrestling, but after we came back today and I won the first match, I said 'okay, I got this,'" said the St. James senior. "I came back with confidence in myself."
"It's pretty exciting, because it's my senior year. I kinda wish with the brackets, they had put me on the lower half, because I probably would've wrestled in the championship," said Pankey. "I think it's really cool because my name is going to be stuck in St. James, that I was the first ever girl. All the new girls that are going to come up and they'll see that if I can do it, they can do it."
Pankey was especially glad to have Crocker by her side this weekend. The duo have been with the program for the last three years together and finally got to break through to a State Meet this year. After Crocker got her pin, she ran into the tunnel and leapt into Pankey's arms, as the duo celebrated together.
"I kinda said if Kaylynn won the first match, I had to win the next match. She lost and I felt that's what was going to happen to me, because I wanted to stick with her and do everything she was doing," said Pankey. "(Getting a quick pin and have the chance to watch Crocker's pin) was pretty exciting. I was like 'I'm coming!'"
St. James head coach Beau Moreland knew there was a lot pressure on Crocker and Pankey coming into the weekend. While he wishes they could've earned State Titles like he knows they're capable, he's glad to see them walk away with medals.
"We definitely came in with higher expectations from ourselves, but anything goes once you get here," said Moreland. "We had one bad day and one bad match each with Kaylynn and Heather and it cost them the opportunity to be out here for the finals match, but we know that they're the best in their weight classes. It's just one of those things where you may be the best on the mat, but you've gotta be the full package and they came up a little short on that, but they bounced back from it.
All in all I'm very happy for the work they've put in. It's been an awesome season and weekend," continued the St. James head coach. "Hopefully they can grow from the experience that they had."
Coach Moreland was glad that he got to send Pankey off with a medal as well. Pankey and Crocker have fought to compete in what was considered to be a boys world in Missouri prior to this season and he's glad that they, and the rest of the girls in the State, are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
"It's awesome, just the recognition in general is awesome," said coach Moreland. "It's nice to see these girls get recognized for what they're doing, because there's a pretty good handful of them across the State that have been doing this for many years and just haven't gotten the credit that they deserve. To actually be able to compete here at the highest level for our sport is great and to be able to take those two medals back to St. James, it jut goes to show that the program is legit."
Pankey and Crocker weren't the only wrestlers for St. James over the weekend. Emily Light was actually the first Lady Tiger to hit the mat, as she didn't have a first round bye like her teammates. She therefore had the first win at State for the Lady Tiger program, as she pinned Ray-Pec's Tatum Westendorf in the second period. She was unfortunately pinned in her second match by McCluer North's Natalie Schaljo, before getting pinned in the third period of another tough match against Zoe Santa Cruz from Fort Zumwalt North.
As a team, St. James came away with a fifth place finish with 44 team points. They were just four points behind McCluer North, who finished in fourth.
The boys also had two wrestlers over the weekend. Frank Parsons lost his first two matches, as he was pinned in the second period by Ryan Scheppers from Osage, the eventual third place finisher at 120. He was then pinned by Marshall's Tytus Bellamy in the third period to end his run at State.
Zach Achterberg had the same luck at 152. Achterberg lost his first match on a 15-2 major decision against Odessa's Luke Malizzi, before losing a tough 8-3 match against Maryville's Drew Spire to put an end to his weekend at State.
Coach Moreland wishes that all three wrestlers could've earned a medal, but he was glad they they were able to experience the atmosphere of wrestling at State. Light is a freshman and both Parsons and Achterberg are sophomores, so they'll have the chance to learn from this experience.
"It's awesome. When you come from small towns and you go to a dual meet and there's only 30 people in the bleachers, you don't really feel the love and support. For them to make it to the pinnacle of our sport here at State and have all these fans and all these coaches and wrestlers from all over the State here, it's a feeling that they've never felt before," said the St. James head coach. "It's a huge driving factor and the motivation for them to continue wrestling next year and work harder for it in the offseason. I hope they really enjoyed it. I know they did."