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Leota and Leopards Take Top Spot at Girls’ State Wrestling Tournament

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It was an exciting and historic weekend for the Hernando Leopards at the Girls FHSAA State Wrestling Tournament in Kissimmee, Fla, where the Leopards secured their first-ever wrestling team state championship, according to Head Coach David Pritz. 

Pritz and company brought a battalion of 14 competitors (five boys, nine girls) to Silver Spurs Arena for the three-day event. The Purple and Gold did not just bring quantity. They brought quality. Six of the nine girls’ wrestlers placed en route to a team and individual title. The Leopards’ coach spoke of the team’s togetherness and months of hard work in a Hernando Wrestling Club Facebook post after the competition.

“I am so incredibly proud of this team,” said Coach Pritz “All season we set a goal of becoming team state champions. This group of girls did everything right! They supported each other and fought for each other week after week since November… They trusted our coaching staff and made sacrifices that put the team before the individual, and most importantly, they stepped on the mat at the state tournament and earned every single point.”

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Below are the results in order from highest placement and points to the least for Hernando’s girls according to Trackwrestling.com:

  • 1st (Class 170) – Grace Leota took gold and scored 28 points following her victory over Megan Preston (Wiregrass Ranch) by an 8-1 decision.
  • 3rd (Class 115) – Emma Bauknight scored 20 points by defeating Natalia Choquegonza (Ponte Vedra) by a 9-2 decision.
  • 3rd (Class 145) – Makenzie Eltzroth scored 16 points for her team as she won her match 4-2 in sudden victory over McKeel’s Alexia Davis.
  • 4th (Class 190) – Chloe Stinnett scored 15 points as she lost by fall to Emari Brown (Harmony) 2 minutes and 16 seconds into the match.
  • 5th (Class 120) – Sydney Bridenstine scored 10 points for her team enroute to her 6-0 win over Isis Severe (North Miami).
  • 6th (Class 155) – Mariah Earl scored 8.5 team points as she was defeated 9-3 by Ava Burre (Bartram Trail) on Saturday.
  • N/A (Class 130) – Julia Salgado scored 3 points for the Leopards as she fell 3:27 into regulation against Geraldine Honore (South Dade) in consolation round 2.
  • N/A (Class 135) – Nathalia Espinal scored 2 team points and was defeated in consolation round 2 by Eysis Brinson (Miami Palmetto) in an 11-6 decision.
  • N/A (Class 125) – Daniela Espinal scored 2 points and advanced to consolation round 2 before falling 4 minutes and 4 seconds into her bout with MaryEllen Wingate (University (Orange City)).
Hernando Coaches after winning their first ever team state championship title. (Left to right: Coach Heaven-Leigh Jackson, Coach Kenneth Day, Coach Brian Pena, Coach David Pritz)
Hernando Coaches after winning their first ever team state championship title. (Left to right: Coach Heaven-Leigh Jackson, Coach Kenneth Day, Coach Brian Pena, Coach David Pritz) Credit: Cynthia Leota

Hernando’s girls wrestling squad accomplished even more at the tournament, including each competitor winning at least one match. Every athlete had a hand in the final 104.5-point outcome, which resulted in the first state championship ever by any Leopards wrestling team, dating back to the school’s founding in 1889. It was also the first time in 27 years that any of the Purple and Gold’s athletic teams won a team title. The individual title came by way of Grace Leota, who won her second such championship on Saturday.

“When I took my second state title, it didn’t even feel real […]” Leota said. “One of my high school goals that I had set for myself was to be a multiple state champion, and to see my dreams become reality is so special to me. To see my team achieve everything they have worked so hard for this season was very emotional for me because this is not just any team to me, this is a family that I am grateful God has blessed me with.”

Grace Leota celebrates winning her second state wrestling title. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota celebrates winning her second state wrestling title. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]

Grace’s victory adds yet another to her growing list of accolades, which includes being a two-time Florida state champion and being named a National High School Coaches Association (NHSCA), Women’s Nationals, and Fargo All-American. As Leota is still a junior, she will graduate as part of the class of 2025, but she already knows what school she would like to attend at the collegiate level.

The athlete’s top choice is Penn State University, even though the school does not have a women’s wrestling program. Why would she be interested in such a college on the other side of the country? Regional training centers (RTC): the university has one that piqued Leota’s curiosity. According to USA Wrestling, these facilities provide select young athletes and those training to qualify for the Olympic Games access to some of the highest-level coaches, training partners, and facilities. Grace’s long-term goal is to be an Olympic wrestler. Since Penn State’s center is designated by USA Wrestling as an Olympic RTC, the school appears to be a great fit for the Leopards’ wrestler.

“Grace is a natural leader on and off the mat,” said Coach Pritz. “She elevates the whole team with her positive energy. She is highly driven and focused on her goals. She is the example of what it takes to be elite in this sport.” 

Mariah Earl gets her hand raised at the FHSAA State Wrestling Championship.  [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Mariah Earl gets her hand raised at the FHSAA State Wrestling Championship. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Emma Bauknight gets the takedown against Mackenzie Thompson from Evangelical Christian. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Emma Bauknight gets the takedown against Mackenzie Thompson from Evangelical Christian. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Chloe Stinnett stuffs a shot against Ani Brown from Matanzas. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Chloe Stinnett stuffs a shot against Ani Brown from Matanzas. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Coach David Pritz and Coach Heaven-Leigh coaching at the FHSAA State Wrestling Championships. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Coach David Pritz and Coach Heaven-Leigh coaching at the FHSAA State Wrestling Championships. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota works to pin her opponent in her quarterfinals match against Mia Johnson from Fort Pierce Central. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota works to pin her opponent in her quarterfinals match against Mia Johnson from Fort Pierce Central. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
 Sydney Bridenstine looks for the fall against Isis Severe of North Miami. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Sydney Bridenstine looks for the fall against Isis Severe of North Miami. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Makenzie Eltzroth gets her hand raised at the FHSAA State Wrestling Championship. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Makenzie Eltzroth gets her hand raised at the FHSAA State Wrestling Championship. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota celebrates her second state championship title. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota celebrates her second state championship title. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
 Grace Leota with the crossface against Megan Preston in the championship finals match at Silver Spurs Arena. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota with the crossface against Megan Preston in the championship finals match at Silver Spurs Arena. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota points to the crowd after winning her second state wrestling title. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Grace Leota points to the crowd after winning her second state wrestling title. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Julia Salgado Campos works to turn Ashley Shaw from Chiles. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]
Julia Salgado Campos works to turn Ashley Shaw from Chiles. [Credit: Cynthia Leota]

Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch is a Graduate with Distinction, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. He's written numerous articles reporting on Florida Gators football, basketball, and soccer teams; the sports of rugby, basketball, professional baseball, hockey, and the NFL Draft. Prior to Hernando Sun he was a contributor to ESPN, Gainesville, FL and Gator Country Multimedia, Inc. in Gainesville, FL, and Stadium Gale.
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