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The Sparkman Lady Senators celebrate its first girls wrestling state championship. Two members of the squad, Akerah Artis and Regan Grant, won individual state titles while Joy Hawkins finished runner-up. Ronnie Watson, Sparkman head coach

Sparkman Wins Girls Wrestling State Championship; Carly Thomas Of Bob Jones Wins Third Consecutive State Title

BIRMINGHAM- “To us, this was not an upset,” stated Sparkman wrestling head coach Ronnie Watson after his team of Lady Senators won the Class 6-7A State Championship held at the CrossPlex in Birmingham. Taking a nine-point victory over Daphne, the team many thought was the favorite going into the State Tournament, Sparkman won its first team title with two Senators winning individual state titles while a third Senator taking runner-up.

“All of our girls won matches in the preliminary rounds as that got us going towards the state title,” said Watson. “From top to bottom, I couldn’t have asked for more from the squad, which featured 19 wresters throughout the season.”

Runner-up by 12 points a year ago, the squad set a goal to make it back to state and come away with the Blue Trophy signifying an AHSAA State Championship. The squad never quit and posted a final team score of 179 to runner-up Daphne’s 170.

Individually, two Sparkman girls and one from Bob Jones were state title winners. For the Patriots, Carly Thomas (28-1) pinned Jessalynn Allen (19-2) of Grissom at 1:42 of the match to earn a three-peat state championship in a season of tragedy for the junior Lady Patriot. Thomas earned her third consecutive title in the 126-pound weight class as she was named among the top 30 wrestlers in the country going into the competition.

For Sparkman, Artis (31-0), a senior, pinned Charlotte Parker (16-3) of Montgomery Catholic at the 2:36 mark of the 145-pound division final. She went through three earlier matches in opening rounds to make it to the finals. She’s been wrestling with the Senators since seventh grade with the first two years having to face boys just to be able to wrestle. Grant (25-2), a junior, pinned Autumn Boutwell (17-6) of Arab in just 25 seconds in the 152-pound division before the stunned crowd in attendance. In her third season of wrestling, Grant set two goals for the 2023 campaign- win a team and individual state championship. She finished third two seasons ago, was runner-up last year and was focused on taking it all in her junior season. Against Boutwell, Grant was 4-1 on the season matchups. “She showed up and took care of business,” added Watson of Grant.

“I had wrestled my opponent just two weeks prior to the State Tournament and I knew she would be good, but I was a little nervous with butterflies knowing this was my last match as a high school wrestler,” said Artis. “I worked hard to get there and I didn’t want this opportunity to slip away. I want to thank all of my coaches along with both my mother and father as I couldn’t have done this without their support.”

Artis was a two-time state runner-up before having her arm raised as the state champion. She said the school didn’t have a girls wrestling team and she had to wrestle against boys before the team was born. “I was going to quit until Coach Watson came to me and told me of the girls team coming on. Two other girls came on board that first year in my sophomore season,” said Artis, who wore a brace on her right shoulder this season due to the shoulder occasionally popping out of place causing intense pain. “We had 15 girls last year and 19 this season. I’m humble about being the first girl to win a state wrestling championship in school history, but I hope I’m an inspiration to others on the team as I’m glad to be a part of this state title squad.”

Grant moved up the ladder of success taking third place in the state two years ago and finishing runner-up a season ago as a sophomore. She attributed her success to great work ethic as she indicated she was taught early in her life not to quit, set a goal and work for it.

“My opponent in the finals was my fourth time to face her this season,” said the 5-foot-6 Grant. “She’s tall and went for her leg for a quick takedown. Once I got her on the mat she reached back for my head and that’s when I slipped around into position to throw a half-nelson and turned her over. She fought hard to get up, but I forced her back on her shoulders for the pin. I have strong legs and utilizing my hips being able to use my weight on my opponents is how I’m successful. The last two years I used strength, but this year I chose to be more intelligent and that made a difference for me.”

Grant said her coaching staff and teammates helped her prepare and through hard work helped reach her individual and team goals.

Joy Hawkins, a junior at Sparkman, finished runner-up in the 185-pound division falling at 1:58 to Aniyah Griffin (35-0) of Pinson Valley. Hawkins (24-1) suffered her first loss of the season in the finals.

For Thomas, standing tall on the mat is something she’s used to. “I was happy to be there again as the girls are getting better throughout the state and I’m happy they are as that helps our sport develop,” said Thomas of her three-peat performance. “It was very stressful being on the big stage at the CrossPlex for the finals. Upon winning it felt like the first time I won the state title two years ago as all of my hard work paid off.”

There was more emotion than just wrestling for Thomas at this year’s State Tournament. On the recent New Year’s Eve, her father, Carlos Thomas, 44, was shot and killed. He had been working in Washington State for a couple years and the last time he had a chance to see Thomas in action on the mat was her state tourney winning effort two years ago.

“The entire state tournament was dedicated to my father,” said Thomas, who currently lives with her mother and grandparents. “I wanted to win for him and I know when I had my arm raised in victory he was smiling from heaven.”

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