Top college women showcased at historic first NAIA Women’s National Invitational in Jamestown, N.D., March 15-16

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | March 13, 2019, 3:48 p.m. (ET)
Menlo College action image courtesy of Menlo

It will be a historic weekend in Jamestown, N.D., as the first-ever NAIA Women’s National Invitational will take place at Jamestown University on Friday and Saturday.

This year, the NAIA became the first major college sports organization to host an official championships, with its National Invitational. Women’s wrestling is an emerging sport in the NAIA, and there are more NAIA-affiliated women’s varsity wrestling programs than any other organization can boast.

“This is going to be one of those historic things you look back on. The way this sport is growing right now, there are going to be a lot of these kind of historic moments. Everything is growing so fast for women’s wrestling, we are going to see many more of these historic firsts,” said Campbellsville head coach Lee Miracle.

This is not the first time that some NAIA teams have come together for a tournament, but it is the first time that the national organization has recognized the sport officially. If you go way back, in women’s college wrestling’s early years, the NAIA held a women’s open event (open to schools from all affiliations) alongside its men’s NAIA National Championships in Montana. (The event had some great women athletes entered including Olympian Tela O’Donnell and World medalist Sally Roberts).

In the past, the wrestling community has needed to host its own college national championships. The first college nationals was held in 2005, which developed into the current Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA) Nationals, which has been held for 15 years and continues today. The 2019 WCWA Nationals was held in February in Atlanta. In regards to other organizations, the wrestling community has applied for Emerging Sports status for women’s wrestling with the NCAA, a process that is ongoing as we speak.

So we come to this year’s NAIA Women’s National Invitational, which will be a competitive tournament with 21 programs pre-registered. More than half the 2019 WCWA All-Americans are entered in this tournament. Some stars who did not compete in the 2019 WCWAs, who were injured or not able to enter, will be added to the field. The athletes will need to wrestle well to earn All-American status.

“It is a good opportunity for the NAIA. The competition is not quite as deep as what we have been wrestling the last 10 years. It is a big opportunity for female wrestling in the United States. Although it is at the invitational level now, it is only going to grow from here. It will show the national collegiate organizations that there are people willing to wrestle and to encourage them to keep building opportunities for these female athletes,” said Oklahoma City head coach Matt Stevens.

The 2019 WCWA national champions who are looking to win two different national titles this year include Asia Ray of Wayland Baptist (101), Alleida Martinez of Menlo (109), Gracie Figueroa of Menlo (109), Solin Pearcy of Menlo (136) and Dymond Guilford of Missouri Baptist (170). Martinez and Figueroa, past age-group World medalists for Team USA, reached the top of the WCWA podium as true freshmen.

Past WCWA national champions entered include 2018 WCWA champion Paige Baynes of Wayland Baptist, who won her title when she attended Grays Harbor College, plus 2017 WCWA champion Andribeth Rivera of Campbellsville. Both entered the 2019 WCWA Nationals, with Rivera placing fourth and Baynes failing to place.

The highest ranked athlete in the tournament on the U.S. Senior National Team is Rachel Watters of Oklahoma City, who was second in the 2018 Final X, and is ranked No. 2 in the nation. Watters missed the women’s college season this year with injury until now, as she is making her first major event after her recovery. Watters is a two-time WCWA All-American (3rd in 2018 and 7th in 2019) and has made multiple age-group World Teams. Somehow, Watters received the No. 5 seed in her weight class in the preliminary brackets.

That 170 pound weight class is the toughest on paper. 2019 WCWA champion Guilford has the No. 1 seed, with three-time WCWA All-American and 2018 runner-up Mariah Harris of Campbellsville at No. 2. Two other 2019 WCWA All-Americans, Precious Bell of Menlo and Stephanie Pantoja of Life, have the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, respectively. Add in Watters, and some other young talents, and this bracket will be very competitive.

There is a four-time WCWA All-American in the field, Koral Sugiyama of Campbellsville, who is the No. 2 seed at 123 pounds. Sugiyama was fourth at the 2019 WCWA Nationals. She has not yet reached a college national finals, with WCWA placements of third, fourth, fifth and seventh. She has been a member of the Senior Women’s National Team, earning a No. 3 national team spot at 60 kg in 2017.

In regards to the team race, Menlo College, which has one of the longest-running women’s varsity programs in the nation, is the heavy favorite to win. Menlo won its first national championships title in February, when it claimed first place in the 2019 WCWA Nationals. The Oaks are led by the three WCWA champions Martinez, Figueroa and Piearcy, as well as a fourth No. 1 NAIA seed, 2019 WCWA runner-up Iman Kazem at 155 pounds. Menlo has solid depth on the team as well, with at least one seeded wrestler in seven of the weight classes (and two seeds at 116, 136 and 143).

If you look at the final team standings from the 2019 WCWAs, if the teams have similar performances, Menlo would win, with Campbellsville in second, Oklahoma City in third, Wayland Baptist in fourth, the University of the Cumberlands in fifth and host Jamestown in sixth. However, with the opportunity for new athletes to battle for All-American opportunities, the team race may be decided by athletes who were not in the mix at the WCWAs.

The Menlo program was launched by the late Hall of Fame coach Lee Allen and its history is something that Menlo Coach Joey Bareng says has been important in the team’s success this year. Prior to its historic win at the WCWA Nationals, Bareng talked about the team’s mindset.

“The kids understand that there is a much bigger picture than themselves and that we have been around for a long time. There are a lot of people who have supported this program from the very beginning. We feel like we would be paying homage to the program, one of the first ever. It would be only fitting if we finally bring home a national title. The mindset is how we train them, to stay focused on the task at hand and don’t make it really bigger than it really is. It really isn’t, just another match, another person standing in front of you. We are relaxed, excited and happy about our progress. But we know this is just the beginning for our program,” said Bareng.

Menlo is not the only NAIA team to be a past WCWA team champion. Oklahoma City University has won four WCWA titles, the University of the Cumberlands boasts three, Missouri Valley College has two and Campbellsville University has one. These teams have been the foundation of the growth and improvement of women’s college wrestling, and they all have a chance to win the historic first NAIA Women’s National Invitational.

Nobody is conceding the NAIA title to Menlo, but all of the other teams understand that it will take a big-time effort to knock Menlo off the top of the podium.

“For us, having such a rough beginning to the year, with injuries and such, it has given us all this time to bring along our freshmen and get the team that we now have. The time has helped us a little bit. At the WCWAs, we did not have our toughest team on the mat, but we put out the team we had at the time. We have had some young athletes make up some ground. The young girls are getting tested by fire. Don’t be surprised if you see somebody like Kenya Sloan and others do real well here, wrestlers you really haven’t heard of,” said Miracle.

Miracle is big at doing his research, and playing all the angles once he has done the math. He sees a path for his team to an NAIA team title.

“In order to do it, you are going to have to win four championships. That is kind of how I have it in my mind. If I can get four titles, I think I can do it. I’ll need four titles, and need to have the rest of my team wrestle well on the back side,” said Miracle.

OCU’s Stevens also expects to see a different team on the mat than he had at the WCWA Nationals. The extra time has allowed him to get a few of his top athletes healthy and prepared.

“The great thing about it, is we have added two more quality athletes to our lineup. Rachel Watters will be wrestling for us, and also Ciera Foster. We have had a rash of injuries. They are competing very well now. We look forward to seeing them earn a bunch of points for our team, more than we had at the WCWAs. I look forward to seeing them do very well.”

Women’s college wrestling has played a big role in the development of the USA into a world power in international freestyle wrestling. For many of the top NAIA programs, there is a bigger picture beyond the major college competitions.

“My athletes know what the goal is, to one day or another make a World Team. These are all just stepping stones to get there. Whether it is the NAIA, the NCAA, whatever that may be, we are going to strive to get our athletes to a higher level,” said Stevens.

The NAIA Women’s National Invitational will be broadcast live on FloWrestling.

At Jamestown, N.D., March 15-16

Seeded wrestlers, with some past achievements

101 pounds
1. Asia Ray Wayland Baptist University, 1st 19WCWA, 3rd 18WCWA
2. Nina Pham Wayland Baptist University, 3rd 19WCWA, 7th 18WCWA
3. Hiba Salem Menlo, 4th 19WCWA, 4th 17WCWA, 5th 16WCWA
4. Junnette Caldera Jamestown, 6th 19WCWA
5. Jessica Rodriguez University of the Cumberlands
6. Amber Garriga Life University

109 pounds
1. Alleida Martinez Menlo, 1st 19WCWA
2. McKayla Campbell Campbellsville, 2nd 19WCWA, 4th 18WCWA
3. Raven Guidry Oklahoma City University, 6th 19WCWA
4. Brianna Ribucan-Leong Lyon College, 8th 19WCWA
5. Tyesha Topps Life University
6. Claire Payne York College

116 pounds
1. Gracie Figueroa Menlo, 1st 19WCWA
2. Jathiya Isaac Wayland Baptist University, 3rd 19WCWA, 5th 17WCWA
3. Yurie Yoneoka University of Providence, 6th 19WCWA
4. Cassidy Jasperson Oklahoma City University, 4th 19WCWA, 4th 17WCWA
5. Madison Angelito University of the Cumberlands, 8th 19WCWA
6. Chelsea Dionisio Jamestown
7. Taryn Ichimura Menlo
8. Jamayia Blackston Jamestown

123 pounds
1. Macy Higa Eastern Oregon, 3rd 19WCWA
2. Koral Sugiyama Campbellsville, 4th 19WCWA, 5th 18WCWA, 3rd 17WCWA, 7th 16WCWA
3. Dajan Treder University of Providence, 5th 18WCWA
4. Tiana Jackson Menlo, 6th 19WCWA
5. Brigitte Mihalca Missouri Baptist University
6. Rebekah Cordova Wayland Baptist University
7. Daniela Flores Oklahoma City University, 8th 18WCWA
8. Victoria Norris Ottawa University

130 pounds
1. Andribeth Rivera Campbellsville, 4th 19WCWA, 1st 17WCWA
2. Cara Romeike Jamestown, 6th 19WCWA
3. Julissa Taitano Southern Oregon
4. Anesia Ramirez Southern Oregon
5. Diana Dzasezeva Waldorf University
6. Jocelyn Murphy Missouri Valley College
7. Daishea Jaime Oklahoma City University
8. Savannah Vold Waldorf University

136 pounds
1. Solin Piearcy Menlo, 1st 19WCWA, 5th 18WCWA, 5th 17WCWA
2. Abnelis Yambo Brewton-Parker College, 8th 19WCWA
3. Erica Sotelo Life University
4. Bridgette Duty University of the Cumberlands, 6th 19WCWA, 7th 18WCWA
5. Julia Mata Missouri Valley College
6. Brittany Woods-Orrison Menlo
7. Elissa Douglass Lyon College
8. Destiny Lyng Oklahoma City University, 7th 19WCWA

143 pounds
1. Maggie Douma Oklahoma City University, 4th 19WCWA, 7th 17WCWA, 2nd 16WCWA
2. Angela Peralta Menlo, 8th 19WCWA, 5th 18WCWA
3. Sienna Ramirez Southern Oregon, 5th 19WCWA, 6th 18WCWA
4. Marilyn Garcia Menlo
5. Zoe Wight Life University
6. Joy Muniz Jamestown
7. Andrea Prince Jamestown
8. Morgan Shines Life University

155 pounds
1. Iman Kazem Menlo, 2nd 19WCWA, 4th 17WCWA, 5th 16WCWA
2. Anna Naylor University of the Cumberlands, 5th 19WCWA, 6th 18WCWA
3. Shamera McTier Missouri Valley College
4. Myranda Velazquez Jamestown, 8th 19WCWA
5. Breanna Jennings Wayland Baptist University
6. Sierra Talmadge Jamestown
7. Alexia Foca Campbellsville, 4th 18WCWA
8. Destinee Rivera Life University

170 pounds
1. Dymond Guilford Missouri Baptist University, 1st 19WCWA, 4th 18WCWA
2. Mariah Harris Campbellsville, 3rd 19WCWA, 2nd 18WCWA, 7th 17WCWA
3. Precious Bell Menlo, 4th 19WCWA
4. Stephanie Pantoja Life University, 7th 19WCWA
5. Rachel Watters Oklahoma City University, 2nd 18FinalX, 3rd 18WCWA, 7th 17WCWA
6. Jordan Nelson Life University
7. Kenya Sloan Campbellsville
8. Alyssa Schrull Jamestown

191 pounds
1. Chi Chi Nwankwo Oklahoma City University, 4th 19WCWA
2. Agatha Andrews Jamestown, 5th 19WCWA
3. Paige Baynes Wayland Baptist University, 1st 18WCWA, 2nd 17WCWA, 5th 16WCWA
4. Leilani Camargo-Naone Midland University, 2nd 18WCWA
5. Jesse Kirby University of the Cumberlands, 6th 19WCWA
6. Alexandra Castillo Campbellsville, 7th 19WCWA

Final NAIA dual team ranking, with the team’s 2019 WCWA team finish
1 Menlo (Calif.), 1st 19WCWAs
2 Wayland Baptist (Texas), 8th 19WCWAs
3 Jamestown (N.D.), 10th 19WCWAs
4 Life (Ga.), 12th 19WCWAs
5 Campbellsville (Ky.), 6th 19WCWAs
6 Cumberlands (Ky.), 9th 19WCWAs
7 Southern Oregon, 11th 19WCWAs
8 Ottawa (Kan.), 25th 19WCWAs
9 Lyon (Ark.), 20th 19WCWAs
10 Eastern Oregon, 19th 19WCWAs
11 Missouri Baptist, 13th 19WCWAs
12 Midland (Neb.), 30th 19WCWAs
12 Missouri Valley (Mo.)
14 Waldorf (Iowa), 30th 19WCWAs
15 Oklahoma City, 7th 19WCWAs
15 Warner Pacific (Ore.), 14th 19WCWAs
17 Providence (Mont.), 15th 19WCWAs
17 York (Neb.), 29th 19WCWAs
19 Lindenwood-Belleville (Ill.), 30th 19WCWAs
20 Brewton-Parker (Ga.), 27th 19WCWAs

Event schedule

Friday, March 15

10 a.m. - Session #1: 2 Championship rounds, Consolations
6 p.m. - NAIA Parade of Champions - Opening Ceremonies
6:30 p.m. - Session #2: Championship Quarterfinals, 2 Consolation rounds

Saturday, March 16

10 a.m. Session #3: Championship Semifinals, Consolation Semifinal, 3rd, 5th and 7th place matches
6 p.m. - Parade of All-Americans & Daktronics - NAIA Scholar-Athletes
7 p.m. - Championship Finals, Closing Ceremonies & Awards Presentation