The 2022-23 Har-Ber High School girl's wrestling team.

The Har-Ber High School girls wrestling team accomplished an historic first for the school Feb. 25, winning the high school state wrestling championship at the Jack Stephens Center on the University of Arkansas-Little Rock campus.

“I am excited for our girls, " said Nika West, Har-Ber’s head boys and girls wrestling coach. “It was amazing to see these ladies go out and compete and bring home the school's first girls state championship. They all became friends and created a bond that will last a lifetime.”

Har-Ber totaled 156 points and won the state competition slightly ahead of Rogers High School, with 152 points. Little Rock Central High School took third in the event, with 103 points. Har-Ber had finished second to Rogers in a tournament just two weeks prior to the state championship.

Har-Ber High School is extremely proud of the team, said Paul Griep, Har-Ber principal.

"To win the state championship is not an easy task. It reflects their commitment to training throughout the season," Griep said. "To win the championship in girls wrestling in our school's history is something that we will always cherish. Congratulations to our student-athletes for an outstanding season!"

Senior Abi Kelly said she felt very excited and blessed to be part of such an historic moment.

“We worked very hard this year to get that title, and it's been back and forth between Rogers,” Kelly said.

Har-Ber trailed Rogers by one point until Niko Ruatakakee won her match. The win secured the state title for the Lady Wildcats.

“We did not tell Niko the implications of her last match at the state tournament, but we had to have Niko win her match for the team to win a state title,” West said. “She pulled it off with a pin against her opponent.”

Ruatakakee, a junior, said she had no idea so much hinged on her match.

“I thought it was just gonna be a regular match to win,” she said. “But then when I had that pin, I just saw my teammates yelling.”

The win was a memorable moment in the school district’s athletics history, said Wayne Stehlik, Springdale Public Schools Athletics director.

“It was great to witness the come-from-behind victory for the Har-Ber girls wrestling team,” Stehlik said. “Seeing the authentic joy and passion of the coaches, athletes and parents when they realized they had won was a remarkable moment.”

Kelly likewise stood out in the competition, West said.

“This is her first state medal, and she was the No. 1 seed from the west with a 56-5 record this season,” he said.

Ruatakakee said winning state was a big deal.

“I feel really special to be a part of it,” she said.

Both student athletes said teamwork was at the heart of winning the state title.

“That's how we always do it,” Kelly said. “Once we come together, that’s when we win big tournaments.”

Kelly also thanked her coaches for all the time they invested in the girls wrestling team.

Coaches Willie WrightJenny BarnesJohn NicholsJacob RobertsonMark Palfreeman and Dusty Bowman all contributed to the success of the girls wrestling team, West said.

“We definitely turned dreams into great memories,” Stehlik said.

Kelly’s brother, Robert White, was also a member of the 2016 Har-Ber state championship wrestling team, West said.

Kelly said she always wanted to have the same opportunity to wrestle competitively as her brother.

“I wanted to, but my mom wouldn't let me,” Kelly said, adding her mother allowed her to join the Har-Ber girls wrestling team when it became an option for her in high school.

Har-Ber began competing in girls wrestling the first year the state sanctioned it as a sport in 2019-2020 season, West said. The program has grown from three wrestlers to 17 since its inception and includes 14 weight classes.

“As a father of three daughters, I look at wrestling as an opportunity for girls to compete and excel. I like the fact that we create opportunities for success through the addition of sports,” he said. “Wrestling is just one of many ways girls can compete and be successful, as well as earn college scholarships.”

Girls wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports in the nation, West said.

“Arkansas was the 19th state to add girls wrestling, and now we have 38 states that have added high school girls wrestling,” he said. “Colleges are adding girls wrestling programs all across the country."

Springdale Youth Wrestling has 18-20 girls ages 5 to 14 who are already eager to join the Lady Wildcat wrestling team in the future, West said.

West attributes the success of the girls wrestling team to the student athletes themselves.

“They had fight, grit and were determined to prove to people that girls wrestling is a sport and they belong in the sport,” he said. “We had great girls who strived for success on and off the mat.”

The commitment of the student athletes was like none other, West said.

“They held each other accountable in their actions and helped encourage one another to be at practice, be on time and give their very best,” he said.

The coaching staff was likewise committed to help each athlete be successful by staying after school, communicating with athletes, demonstrating technique and watching film of opponents they may have to face in tournaments with the team’s wrestlers.

Another first is in store for the Lady Wildcat wrestlers in the future as well, West said.

“We will transition into freestyle wrestling, which is the Olympic style of wrestling,” he said.

Evolving from folkstyle to freestyle wrestling will better prepare student athletes for competing at the college level, he said.

West has coached wrestling for 17 years, 10 of which have been in support of Har-Ber, he said. He likewise serves students as a behavioral interventionist.

Ruatakakee said she plans to wrestle with the Lady Wildcats her senior year. Kelly aspires to wrestle competitively in college, she said, and is in the process of making the final decision on which college she’ll represent on the mat.

Click Here to Share a Story for Potential Coverage