Taylor is back, sights set on state championship

Feb. 29—Kenzi Taylor took a year away from wrestling, for therapeutic reasons more than anything. But one thing's for sure.

She's happy to be back.

"I thought it was crazy I could just give it up after doing it for 10 years of my life," the Independence senior said. "I missed seeing all my friends, all the working out. It was just hard watching and not being out on the mat."

Taylor had been one of the state's top female wrestlers. She won a state championship at Independence Middle School in 2020 at the inaugural girls state tournament. After missing the event her freshman year because of Covid, Taylor claimed the 123-pound state championship as a sophomore.

But last year she decided to put wrestling in the past. It was more a matter of need than of wanting to.

"Mostly just focusing on myself," she said before a practice last week. "Schoolwork. I had to get in the right headspace. I wasn't, at all."

Taylor remained with the Patriots cheer team, for which, among other things, she was on the sideline when the football team won the 2022 Class AA state championship in Wheeling. Come wrestling season, she wasn't where she wanted to be.

She managed to be around it, be it working out on her own or attending random tournaments. In January, she worked the scorers table when Independence hosted the Class AA/A Region 3 state duals qualifier.

It just wasn't the same, so she finally decided she would get back in for her senior year. Until something derailed her once again.

"I was going to do it at the beginning of the season, but some people made me kind of mad. So I was just like, 'Well, I'm not going to do it,'" she said.

Whatever it was, Taylor was able to put that behind her. She missed the sport, and she does have a future to think about.

"I decided I can do this in college," she said, "so I might as well get out there."

That finally happened nearly three weeks ago. Taylor made her senior debut at the Coalfield Conference Tournament, and it was a successful return. She placed fourth in the 120-pound division.

Taylor went in with realistic expectations. More than anything, she just wanted to enjoy the moment.

"My mindset was basically have fun," Taylor said. "It's been a while. I know I'm not going to win them all. And I know I'm definitely not back in shape yet. But as long as I keep working, I think it'll be pretty good."

She hasn't wrestled since then and that's by design. She could have joined her teammates at the Class AA/A Region 3 tournament and try to qualify for the boys state tournament. Had she done that, she would have been ineligible for the girls state tournament.

Taylor opted for the latter, and will be part of a historic Saturday at the Mountain Health Arena in Huntington. For the first time, the girls state tournament will be held alongside the boys tournament, starting at 10:30 a.m.

Championship matches will be wrestled at 6 p.m. with the boys championships.

Taylor's reputation precedes her. She goes in as the No. 3 seed in the 126-pound division.

Independence coach Cliff Warden is happy to have Taylor back.

"Her conditioning's still not the best, but we'll continue to work on that a little bit," he said. "And then, as much as anything, figure out the style of match she needs to wrestle to sort of camouflage her conditioning. You've got to rest in the right places."

Taylor has shown she can hold her own against boys wrestlers. She qualified for the state tournament as a freshman and sophomore, and that was an option this time around. But she wants to be in the girls tournament, chasing her second state title and helping further advance the sport.

"I'm excited. It's never been held the same place as the boys," Taylor said. "There's a lot more girls. I feel like girls wrestling is getting bigger and we're going to be more involved. It's going to be as normal as boys wresting is."

"She can wrestle with the boys, and that was a decision (to make) because obviously we were without a 126-pounder and we sort of weighed that out," Warden said. "She decided she would rather go for that second girls title, so that's where she needs to be."

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