(Posted Feb. 26, 2020)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
The community of London never thought they’d see the day that Grace Jones, a student-athlete with a sterling reputation, was escorted through town by police. Yet that is exactly what happened in the early evening hours of Feb. 23.
After Jones left a state wrestling championship in which she competed, she and her family were intercepted by a slew of cruisers at the county line. With the cruiser lights flashing and a crowd of onlookers hoisting signs, the 16-year-old was equal parts proud and embarrassed.
“It was just crazy,” she said.
Instead of rerouting the high school junior to the station for booking, law enforcement escorted Jones to London High School where she rang the victory bell for making it into the school’s history books.
Since demanding that she be enrolled in the London Wrestling Club’s peewee division at the age of 5, Jones has dreamed of becoming a champion. She knew it was a tall order–after all, she was one of only a handful of girls in the county and state to participate in the sport–but that didn’t stop her from envisioning the moment she would reign supreme.
“I knew it would be hard and maybe even unlikely, but I wanted to try to be the best,” she said.
Upon joining the wrestling team at London High School her sophomore year, Jones noticed an increase in girls competing in the sport–not at her school, though try as she might to recruit, but throughout the state.
Members of the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association noticed the trend, too.
“We had started to see a spike in female wrestlers enrolling in their school’s programs a few years back,” said Dominic DiSabato, past president of the association. “We knew eventually there would be enough participants to be able to host a state championship for girls, but we knew we were not there yet.”
Then 2019 came around and suddenly there were enough.
“In 2018, there were roughly 250 girls registered to wrestling teams, and the following year we had more than 500,” he said.
It was time, he said, that a girls’ state wrestling championship be held.
When the news broke that the inaugural championship would fall on the weekend of Feb. 22, 2020, Jones was ecstatic. But then she realized it would conflict with a team appearance at the Central Buckeye Conference tournament.
She spoke to her teammates about the conundrum, and the response was unanimous: go follow your dreams.
“I had their support and that meant everything to me,” she said.
Ranked first in the 116-pound weight class, Jones set off on Feb. 22 for Hilliard-Davidson High School, site of the championship. Though the favorite, Jones said she knew not to be overly confident.
“I was the underdog all last year, so I was able to sneak up on people,” she said. “Throughout the tournament, I was on edge knowing that there were underdogs looking to come out on top.”
After a first-round bye, Jones pinned Jordyn Hoffman of Tinora High School in less than a minute. In the second match of the day, Jones pinned Jada Shafer of Minerva High School in 1:23. That win propelled her to the semi-finals on Feb. 23.
Jones’s nerves were amplified. The crowd was raucous, she was facing much tougher competition, and her mother, Sherri, kept mentioning how she had to conserve her phone battery to take a picture when Jones won.
“We were trying to take her mind off of things with jokes like we always do,” Sherri said, “but she really wasn’t having it right then.”
Jones’s teammates arrived, including Brady Fisher, her longtime training partner who led her through drills and went over match strategies. Finally, it was time for the semi-finals, where Jones was pitted against Shi’anna Bamba, a freshman wrestling sensation from Massillon Perry. Jones pinned her in the third period.
For three hours, Jones waited to compete in the title match against Ellie Paterra of Indian Creek, ranked second at 116-pounds. When the match finally happened, it was one of the toughest of Jones’s career.
“She was big and strong,” Jones said of Paterra.
For more than seven minutes, No. 1 and No. 2 clashed on the mat, competing their hearts out in what was dubbed the best match of the tournament by some commentators. With the points tied at 4-4 with less than 30 second left in the third period, Jones knew she had to make a move.
As the clock ticked down, Paterra had Jones on the bottom, looking like she might take the win. Then Jones fought her way to the top position with a smooth reversal just as time ran out. With that win, Jones became the first girl in the state to win a championship in the 116-pound weight class, and the first wrestler (boy or girl) at London High School to win a state championship.
She largely credits her win to her teammates.
“They have had me try to get out of that move so much in practice,” she said. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without them.”
Jones said the weekend championship and its aftermath has been a whirlwind of emotion, but she says there is no time to rest on her laurels as London is preparing for their sectionals this weekend.
Still, in the quieter moments, she said she can reflect on what a momentous occasion this state championship was for her, for the community, and for the sport she loves.
“I hope that this inspires more girls in the community, around the county and throughout the state to want to participate in wrestling,” she said. “I want them to see this tournament and these achievements and come away saying, ‘Yeah, I want to try that.’”
More than 250 female wrestlers competed in the inaugural Girls State Wrestling Championship, sponsored by the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association. DiSabato said that in the future, he believes the state championship will be sanctioned by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
“I believe it’s going to happen,” he said. “Sooner, rather than later.”