DETROIT — Each season seems to bring Rihanna Venegas one step closer to her ultimate goal.
Last March, Venegas became the first girl from the Catholic League to earn all-state honors in wrestling, with a third-place finish in the inaugural MHSAA girls individual tournament.
Although the Riverview Gabriel Richard sophomore made progress in her return trip to the finals last weekend, this time she had to settle for second. Despite pinning her first three opponents to reach the 145-pound championship final, Venegas was taken down in the third round by St. Charles senior Lydia Roope.
“This was actually my first loss in the girls’ division — my finals match,” she said. “I was expecting to win it and be on top of the podium. I was out for half of the year, but I came back stronger, I felt.”
Like most of the 224 girls who qualified for the finals at Ford Field on March 4-5, Venegas got into the sport when it was pretty much the exclusive domain of boys. In recent years, though, the popularity of girls wrestling has grown to the point where the Michigan High School Athletic Association has sanctioned the sport and conducts an all-class girls’ championship competition with 14 weight divisions, parallel to the boys.
“I’m happy to be here, and I’m happy for all the girls that made it up here. To be on the podium is very special,” Venegas said, shortly after receiving her silver medal.
One of the other girls who made it to the podium was her freshman teammate, Jacey Barnabei. After pinning her first two opponents in the 135-pound weight class, Barnabei lost her semi-final match to Birch Run senior Caylynn Chandler, but closed out strong by winning two more matches in the consolation half of the bracket.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking. I came in very nervous because I’m a freshman,” Barnabei said. “Since I lost in the semis, I came to the mindset that I had to wrestle back to get third, and I wrestled as hard as I could, and I came in third.”
Like her teammate, Barnabei is pleased over that there are more and more girls embracing the sport.
“When I first started, I remember only wrestling boys,” she said. “If there was another girl in the bracket, we automatically became friends. But now, seeing all these girls, and seeing a special tournament for the girls is crazy. I love watching all these girls come in and being able to participate in a sport that we all love.”
Both Pioneer girls got into wrestling from a young age — third grade for Venegas and first grade for Barnabei. Each saw their brothers wrestle and decided it was something they wanted to try. Each also had supportive fathers who had knowledge of the sport.
“My dad (Diego Venegas) is the one who got us into it,” Rihanna said. “My brother started wrestling, and after a couple of years, I wanted to join. It looked fun to me.”
At this point we should mention that her brother, Sebastian Martinez, won his second state championship in two seasons. In a rematch of last season’s final, Martinez took the 157-pound crown in the Division 4 boys bracket, with a 10-2 major decision of Dillon Raab of Bark River-Harris.
“I was the next match right after his,” Venegas said. “I watched the last 10 seconds, but then they made me go behind the stage (to make the entrance for her championship bout). I got very excited; my adrenaline started running through me, because it was my turn now.”
Gabriel Richard fans had a lot to watch throughout the weekend, as the Pioneers had six qualifiers for the state finals — four boys and both girls out of a 13-member squad. Five of the six won at least two of their matches to earn all-state honors. Besides Martinez, Venegas and Barnabei, sophomore Joey Calhoun finished sixth at 175 pounds, and freshman Luke Harrington placed seventh at 126. The other Pioneer qualifier, freshman Johnathan Castellanos, competed in the 106-pound class.
“These guys work hard every day, and they’ve had experience wrestling, not just for us,” coach Derek Zambon said. “We fine tune some things and get them to the next level. We have a few more starting as freshmen and we’re hoping to develop their skills.”
As a team, the Pioneers won a district title this winter — a feat magnified by the fact that they just resumed the program last season after being on hiatus for a dozen years or so.
“Hopefully as we continue to build and grow, our team has more and more people, and more and more success,” Zambon said. “They had a program in the past, I don’t want to dismiss that, but in our second year with this group, we made it to the regional finals as a team. We were one dual (win) from making it to the show (team finals) over in Kalamazoo, and we’re hoping in the next couple of years, we’ll have enough talent to compete at that level.”
Zambon is hoping the team’s sudden accomplishments generate more attention to the sport within the Gabriel Richard student body.
Venegas and Barnabei couldn’t agree more, as they seek to recruit more classmates to join the team.
“Yes, we need more girls, definitely. We’re trying to grow this sport more and more,” Venegas said. “Wrestling’s not just a sport, it teaches you much more — in life lessons, especially. It makes you a better person overall. Like my teammate, Joey Calhoun, says all the time, wrestling’s not a fun sport, but it’s rewarding.”
“Wrestling honestly changed my life,” Barnabei said. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. It created my whole entire personality. I’ve made so many friends — great, amazing friends — throughout the sport.”