A historic moment
Mortensen, Auradou, Dexter earn first PHS girls’ wrestling All-State honors
PINEDALE – The spotlight illuminated the mats as the final rounds began at the inaugural Wyoming Girls’ State Wrestling Championships in Casper on Friday, Feb. 24.
Pinedale High School (PHS) freshman McKinzie Mortensen waited all day to prove herself in the championship match that evening.
“We didn’t end up wrestling until 7 o’clock at night,” Mortensen said. “That time span kind of messed with everyone – a lot of time for overthinking and stressing.”
On Thursday, Mortensen pinned Jayleigh Wright, of Green River, 4 minutes and 49 seconds into the semifinal match of the 100-pound bracket to advance to the finals.
The appointed hour for the championship bout finally approached.
“I listened to music to get pumped up,” she said. “Then I warmed up with the team and got into my own little space to focus on the match.”
Mortensen stepped onto the championship mat and shook hands with Glenrock’s Lucy Ticknor. The referee’s whistle sounded.
“The first period went pretty well,” Mortensen said. “(Ticknor) took a shot and I got 2 points. I started getting nervous in the third period because she was trying to pin me. She had my head stuck for a solid minute and a half. It was pretty scary because I thought she had me at one point.”
Digging deep, Mortensen broke free and regained the upper hand as the final seconds counted down on the shot clock.
“When I finally got 2 points (in the third period) and was able to work from there, I felt relieved,” said Mortensen. “I had control over (Ticknor) so I could run what I wanted and counteract what she did.”
The towel tapper ran out onto the mat.
“As soon as I saw the towel tapper hit the back of the ref, I stood up all happy,” Mortensen said. “Happy tears came and I ran over and gave (Head Coach Kendall) Horrocks a hug.”
Mortensen defeated Ticknor by a 13-2 major decision to earn the first girls’ state wrestling championship in Wyoming history and snag 3A All-State honors.
“It was a cool opportunity to represent Pinedale and end up being the first girl to win State,” Mortensen said.
A surreal experience
Senior Rhonda Auradou battled through the 115-pound bracket on Thursday. Auradou pinned Paisley Smith, of Star Valley, at 2:42 into the quarterfinals. Progressing to the semifinals, Auradou defeated Star Valley’s Alexis Angell by fall with 25 seconds remaining in the first period.
As the semifinal referee lifted Auradou’s arm in triumph, the realization hit that only the championship match remained before her high-school wrestling career came to an end.
“It was official – I would either get first or second place at State my first year wrestling,” Auradou said.
Auradou spent Friday preparing physically and mentally for the finals.
“I kept telling myself that even if I’m nervous, it’s going to be okay,” she said.
The lights in the arena dimmed except for the spotlight on the championship mats.
“It felt like I was at a concert for someone famous,” Auradou said. “There were thousands of people in the arena. Everyone was a blur except for me and my opponent.”
Auradou shook hands with AnnaBeth Bornhoft from Wind River. The athletes grappled through two periods before Bornhoft won by fall 56 seconds into the second period.
Auradou captured silver, becoming the first PHS senior to garner All-State honors in girls’ wrestling.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” Auradou said. “I loved being at State and loved the person that I got to wrestle in the finals. It was a good match. State was a surreal experience.”
A brand new sport
Junior Katyana Dexter, like Auradou, was a “newbie” to wrestling.
“It was a brand new sport,” said Dexter. “I had nothing to lose and thought it would be fun. And I knew it would get me into really good shape, because wrestlers condition pretty hard.”
At State, Dexter swept the opening rounds in the 235-pound bracket. Making quick work of Star Valley’s Nellie Mayes in the quarterfinals, Dexter pinned her opponent at 49 seconds.
The semifinals pitted Dexter against Aaliyah Martin, of Evanston. Dexter swiftly defeated Martin by fall with 1:15 remaining in the first period.
Dexter landed in the championship match against Becca Oetken from Sheridan.
“It was such a dramatic change going from the semifinals to the finals,” Dexter said. “(Oetken) and I moved through both sides of the bracket. She was the one to beat.”
Dexter fought Oetken through the second period before Oetken won by pin.
“It was a tough round and (Oetken) was strong,” Dexter said. “She came out and took the first shot. I hung on and then it was a scramble. (Oetken) really got the edge up on me endurance wise. It’s been awhile since I had to wrestle past the first period. It was a learning experience.”
Dexter achieved second place at State and received All-State honors, the first junior in PHS girls’ wrestling history to earn the award.
“State was cool,” Dexter said. “I got to see talent from all ends of Wyoming and got to see girls come together to wrestle for the first time.”
An epic season
Mortensen possessed a leg up on most of the Lady Wrangler squad with nine years of experience under her belt competing on a USA Wrestling team.
“My twin sister, Kaylea, started wrestling first,” Mortensen said. “Watching her beat up on the boys, I thought I would join.”
Even though Mortensen was a seasoned veteran, she recognized that she could also learn from new athletes.
“Sometimes the newbies caught on really easily and understood a move that maybe the experienced athletes could not remember,” Mortensen said. “We all helped each other.”
Auradou and Dexter both admitted the learning curve was steep at first.
“Every day at practice involved learning something new,” said Dexter. “It was overwhelming, in a sense, because we got so much thrown at us. I think our coaches prepared us well for the season, though, and gave us all we needed to know. They would get us to crack down on a few moves at a time in order to perfect them.”
Catching up with experienced wrestlers involved a significant time commitment.
“I frequently stayed after practice and asked the coaches to teach me new moves,” Auradou said.
Varsity wrestlers on the boys’ team often provided assistance.
“The boys were super cool about explaining a move and offering critiques,” said Auradou.
Auradou and Dexter attended a preseason camp in Rock Springs hosted by former high school state wrestling champions Brinley Green and Maggie Smith.
“The camp gave me a basic understanding of wrestling, like what a sprawl is and how to take a shot,” said Dexter.
Pinedale wrestlers developed strong bonds with athletes from opposing teams throughout the season.
“The camaraderie was unlike any other sport I’ve been in,” said Dexter. “We were friends with every team. Because wrestling was brand new for most of us, it made us tighter.”
The Lady Wranglers kicked off their historic season by winning the Evanston Tournament on Dec. 10.
“We went out there and we demolished the other teams even though it was the first time wrestling for half the team,” said Mortensen.
Dexter highlighted the annual Tournament of Champions in Vernal, Utah, on Jan. 6-7.
“We got to see competition from outside the state,” Dexter said. “Most of the girls (in Utah) had more experience. It was good to wrestle people who are better than you and just fight for it.”
Auradou felt the team clicked the week before Regionals at the Pinedale Tournament on Feb. 11.
“These were our home mats,” she said. “This was where we were going to prove it to them.”
The Lady Wranglers “proved it” and secured gold at the home tournament.
Dexter and Mortensen look forward to returning to the mats for the 2023-2024 season and a chance to unseat the new defending girls’ state champions, Star Valley.
“This year was a cool experience and I hope next year is even better with a bunch of new freshmen coming in or other high-schoolers joining to accomplish our goal of beating Star Valley,” Mortensen said.
Auradou graduates this spring and is interested in pursuing a career in psychology or art therapy. Auradou thanked her teammates, coaches, parents and sister for their support during the season.
Mortensen gave a shoutout to her coaches, teammates and parents. Dexter also expressed gratitude to the coaching staff, the other Lady Wrangler wrestlers and her parents.
“I’m so tremendously proud of our team and what we were able to accomplish,” said Auradou. “Getting to be in this time period, where we are going to be remembered as the ones who started girls’ wrestling in Wyoming, was an amazing experience. I hope that the excitement from the season will be enough to encourage future girl wrestlers.”