During the week of July 15-22, more than 7,000 of the best high school wrestlers in the country descended upon Fargo, North Dakota, to compete for the coveted “Stop Sign” in the 2023 USMC 16U & Junior National Duals. Of those 7,000, 124 were from Florida, and of those 124, five were from Hernando County.
Emma Bauknight 117 lb (Hernando), Jasmine Serrano 122 lb (Springstead), Daniela Espinal 127 lb (Hernando), Grace Leota 164 lb (Hernando), and Addison Breeding 132 lb (Weeki Wachee) all qualified for nationals at the Florida Freestyle and Greco Championships held last May at the Tampa Convention Center. Bauknight, Serrano, and Leota placed first in their respective weight classes, Breeding placed second in Greco Roman and Espinal placed third to be eligible to compete at the Fargodome in North Dakota.
All five wrestlers trained rigorously with their local club teams and coaches leading up to the massive event. Grace Leota describes double and even triple practices daily to prepare for the prestigious event known by most as “Fargo,” named after the city it is set in.
Wrestlers have described Fargo as “big, overwhelming, nerve-wracking and crazy,” which is no surprise given the level of competition battling to make it atop the podium where only the top eight will stand upon. The men saw 128 and 256 man brackets, whereas the women saw 64 and 128 man brackets. With double elimination style, placing at Fargo is no easy feat.
With Florida bringing over 100 wrestlers to Fargo, many coaches were needed. The men’s team brought 23 coaches, and the women brought nine. Of these coaches, Hernando’s own Coach David Pritz with Hernando Wrestling Club, was chosen as one of the National Team Coaches for the women’s team.
When asked how he felt to be chosen as a coach, Pritz said, “Definitely feel blessed to be chosen as one of the Florida National Team Coaches. It’s been an amazing opportunity to work alongside some of the best coaches and athletes in the state. And even more special, I got to coach three of our club kids in Fargo.”
Pritz continued, “I am beyond proud of how our three girls competed. Grace continues to prove that she is one of the top girls in the country. Finishing in the top four at Fargo is something few wrestlers ever accomplish. I know Grace will be looking to claim a national title next year, and our girls will be pushing hard for podium spots.”
Grace Leota dominated her first three matches, winning each by pin-fall in under a minute. She lost her fourth match to nationally ranked Oklahoma state champ Millie Azlin and fell into the consolation round. Leota then went on a run and won her next three matches against Billie Bonwell of Nevada, Elizabeth Madison of Ohio, and Alexandria Ray of Oklahoma. She wrestled Kaylie Hall from West Virginia and ultimately lost 4-0 by decision. Leota went 6-2, securing a fourth place finish to earn All-American status. She is the first in Hernando Wrestling Club’s history to achieve All-American at Fargo. “I didn’t have the outcome I would have liked, but I’m happy I placed in the top four of my weight class and especially happy to represent Florida on the national stage,” Leota said.
Each of the Hernando County wrestlers fought hard in their respective weight classes. Emma Bauknight showed complete dominance by pinning Isabela Garcia from California in 39 seconds. She also beat Sydney Stifter from Missouri by tech-fall. Bauknight went 2-2 in the 117 lb bracket. Jasmine Serrano beat Wyoming’s Tai McBride by decision 6-1 and California’s Breezy Johnson 3-0. Serrano went 2-2 in the 122 lb bracket. Daniela Espinal, new to competing in national tournaments, competed hard but ultimately went 0-2. Addison Breeding had the most extensive brackets, with a 128-man bracket for Greco-Roman and a 256-man bracket for Freestyle. Breeding had four dominant wins in his Greco-Roman bracket pinning his opponents all in under a minute. He went 0-2 in Freestyle.
Bauknight, Serrano, Espinal, and Leota will be Juniors in the upcoming 2023-24 school year. Breeding graduated this year and will continue his wrestling and academic career at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio.