On historic day, Liberty girls finish runner-up

Mar. 3—huntington — Rylei Belcher was part of history Saturday night.

The Liberty senior faced Spring Valley's Ciara Riner in the 138-pound finals at the West Virginia Girls Invitational state tournament. Riner is not only one of the top girl wrestlers in the state, but also nationally. She finished fourth at 140 pounds at the Women of Ironman tournament in Ohio in December.

Belcher, meanwhile, had 25 career matches to her credit.

It took Riner 51 seconds to pin Belcher and close her career with a huge milestone.

"I was her 200th win," Belcher said with a smile.

"She is amazing. I went in, no matter how scary she is, I went in ready to go. And she beat me. She's really good."

Really, the results, while important, seemed to take a back seat to the significance of the moment. Belcher was part of a bigger historic moment, along with 105 other girls.

The tournament was held at the Marshall Health Network Arena alongside the boys tournament for the first time. The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission is still seeking to sanction girls wrestling, and exposing the sport on the big stage is seen as a big step in that direction.

"I love it," Belcher said. "This will go down in history, this being the first one in history. It's been amazing seeing all these girls here."

The girls tournament started at the same time as the boys consolation matches. Girls championship and consolation matches were held on four mats, and ran with the same efficiency as the boys tournament has for years.

And during the championship session, the girls place winner — four in each of 12 weight classes — took their place on the podium, just like the boys.

"It honestly feels amazing that we are now able to have states with everybody else," Liberty senior Maddy Lucas said. "With our girls team, we did really good and it feels amazing being part of this."

Thirty-six of the 106 wrestlers were from local schools, including seven from Liberty, which went in as the state's top-ranked girls team.

And, yes, the Raiders represented themselves as such.

Liberty placed two girls in the finals — Belcher and Lucas, who was seeded third at 235. The Raiders went into the championships leading No. 2 Parkersburg South in the team race, 88.5-81.

The Patriots had four girls in the finals, including Anniya Powell at 114 and Justice Anthony at 120, both of whom scored pins to earn a 4 1/2-point for their team.

After Belcher's loss to Riner, the Patriots' Olivia Junkins fell to Presley Hurlbrink of Musselman, leaving Liberty with a chance at winning the team title. But Rory Amos of Paden City pinned Lucas to end the night.

"I'm super proud of all of my girls," Liberty coach Cole Blankenship. "Even though we didn't win, being able to score that many points and take second place, I think that's a huge accomplishment, especially for a lot of these first-year girls. I'm super proud of them, man. They're really working hard and they earned it."

Liberty had numbers, but not a lot of experience. None of the girls had more than three years of experience, and that was just Lucas and fellow senior Karlie Osborne. The two friends took Blankenship up on his invitation to join the team when they were sophomores.

They liked it and convinced others to join them the last two seasons.

"Me and Karlie starting this wrestling team, it definitely has made a difference in us and other people," Lucas said. "It has definitely helped bring self-esteem up for people. Starting this program with Karlie, it's been amazing and I wouldn't want anything better. Our wrestling team and our coaches have definitely done a lot for us and I appreciate it."

The fact that Blankenship has been able to bring enough girls to the team to compete for a state championship is one thing. But they do more than just show up. As Saturday proved, they are also winning and have done so in a short amount of time.

"I just think you have to do the simple stuff well," Blankenship said. "You watch a college match or an Olympic match, they're not doing crazy stuff. They're doing very simple stuff perfectly. That's what I believe in. Just doing simple stuff well. And I work them really hard. They're willing to put in the effort, and they're getting better."

"We went from girls who have never wrestled to being ranked second, and now we were ranked first," Belcher said. "We got second today in states. We worked hard all year to be where we are today."

In addition to Belcher and Lucas, Osborne (third, 132), Lucy Farris (fourth, 152) and Allie Bowles (third, 185) placed for the Raiders.

Farris, Emma Hartshorn and Katie Mullens are all sophomores and Bowles is a freshman. They will return, and Blankenship will continue to try to grow the team.

"This is the first time I've brought a pack of girls to the state tournament. I think we did pretty well," he said. "To have so many inexperienced wrestlers, I think next year and the year after, we're going to have an incredible team. We've already got a good team with all these novice wrestlers. I think it's only going to get better."

"This experience was awesome," Belcher said. "After not placing last year, I wanted to make it big for my senior year. It was amazing. It was really great."

Lucas enjoyed getting something started at her school and believes the team and sport will continue to thrive after Saturday's experience.

"I definitely think it will, because my first year at states there wasn't that many girls," Lucas said. "There was like four girls in each weight class. So I definitely think it's growing and I hope it gets even bigger.

"The wrestling team has gave me a second family. And it's definitely emotional, leaving them. It's very meaningful to me, because they are basically like my family."

"The girls are having a blast," Blankenship said. "I think they deserve it."

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Oak Hill's Kirclyn Coleman gave the area three state finalists, and she drew just as tough an assignment as Belcher. Anthony was the 120-pound runner-up at the Women of Ironman.

Coleman scored first period pins in each of her first three matches en route to the finals, as did Anthony. In the finals, she pinned Coleman at the 3:33 mark to win the title.

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Shady Spring senior Brooklynn McClure finished third at 100 pounds. It was her third such finish in as many seasons. Teammate Abigail Honaker was fourth at 145.

Independence senior Kenzi Taylor was third at 126. Maya Frank of Greenbrier East was third at 120. Makenzie Hanshaw of Nicholas County was third at 138.

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East Hardy's Stephen Miller was named Coach of the Year, and the Cougars' 185-pound champion Nahkita Bauserman was named Most Outstanding Wrestler. She pinned Princeton's Brooke Bennett in the championship match.

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