Isabella Renfro had limited freestyle wrestling experience and tempered expectations heading into the 2022 Junior and Cadet National Championships earlier this week in Fargo, North Dakota.
By the end of the event, she headed back to her Seneca home as a double All-American.
Renfro, a Seneca High School grappler and Missouri folkstyle state runner-up this past winter, tried her hand at freestyle for the first time in her career this summer and clinched her double All-American status by placing fifth in the cadet division (ages 16-under) and fourth in the junior division (Grades 9-12) at the women’s national tournament in Fargo on July 16-20.
Competing at the 180-pound weight class in both divisions, Renfro went 10-4 on the week against competitors from across the nation.
“I was a little bit surprised,” Renfro said Friday. “I knew I had been working hard, but there was always that thought that you’re new to this and you haven’t been working hard enough. So it was a nice surprise.
“I had an open mind going into the tournament. Being an All-American was definitely something I wanted. … I didn’t know if I had what it took to do it, but here I am with two (All-American plaques). So I’m very thankful for that.”
The Seneca standout said she took a couple of weeks off after her second-place finish at the MSHSAA Girls Wrestling Championships in February before she began training in freestyle for the first time.
Her father, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M athletics director and wrestling coach Joe Renfro, was one of several coaches who trained her prior to her first-place finish at the state cadet tournament in Sedalia, Missouri, earlier in the summer, which qualified her for the national tournament.
Renfro competed at the national tournament for Team Missouri, which finished runner-up in the cadet team competition and fourth in the junior competition.
Missouri was coached by Amond Prater, a former collegiate wrestler for the University of Missouri and current strength and conditioning coach for A-Train Performance Women’s Wrestling Club in St. Louis.
“Hats off to all of our teams, first of all,” Prater said. “Missouri wrestling is setting the bar pretty high. When we added women’s wrestling at the high school level, that put us on a good path to have wrestlers like Isabella who have success early on. She just followed what she had accomplished with her coaches in high school, and then by the time we got her to our training camp, we just honed in on things that she did well.
“She’s very tenacious on the mat and she doesn’t quit any of her matches. Those are two great attributes that she was able to utilize to become an All-American. … I really liked that she took the training seriously, and as a result, she left with two All-American placements. I’m very glad she let us share in that journey. She works so hard and she wants to accomplish of a lot of things in this sport.”
Renfro opened her week in Fargo by going 3-2 in the cadet tournament.
She picked up back-to-back falls over Katianna Martinez of California and Taylor Waddy of Virginia before suffering losses to Kayli Hayden of Oklahoma and Tirza Twoteeth of Montana. She capped the tourney with a 9-0 triumph over Symphony Veloz of Oklahoma in the fifth-place match.
“Every match that I wrestled, I tried to learn something from it,” Renfro said. “So I grew more and more comfortable with my positioning. It got to a point where I knew I belonged at the national tournament. Even with the matches I lost, I probably learned the most from those. It really opened my eyes to how much I had to learn and how much I could improve.”
In the junior tournament, Renfro got off to another roaring start with consecutive pins over Amaya Green of Colorado and Grace Johns of Kansas. It wasn’t until the championship round of 16 that she suffered her first loss in a bout against Alivia White of Washington.
Renfro won her next five matches — four by fall — in the consolation bracket to reach the third-place match. In that streak, she avenged a loss she suffered in the cadet tournament by knocking off Twoteeth by fall in the consolation semifinals.
The Seneca grappler settled for fourth place after being upended by Katelyn Lewis of Wisconsin in her final match of the junior competition. She finished 7-2 in her bracket.
Renfro said she was in awe of the national tournament as well as the amount of female competitors taking part in the event.
“Here in Missouri, there aren’t as many tournaments and as many big tournaments like you see at Fargo,” she said. “So it was really nice to go to a place where there are so many girls competing at a high level and vying for their spot on the podium.
“There were 27 mats, and at one point, girls matches were on every single one of them. It was just cool to see that and be a part of such a big event that promotes women’s wrestling.”
As for Renfro’s celebration following her double All-American performance?
“I hit the road and took a 10-hour drive home,” she said, laughing. “As soon as I got home at 7 a.m. that next morning, I had to go to summer weights. So I did that, and then I came home and there was an ice cream cake waiting for me in the freezer. That was pretty nice after cutting all of that weight.”