RAPID CITY — Ronna Heaton never asked to be an ambassador. But as one of the top wrestlers at 113 pounds in the state — and because she’s a girl competing in what’s perceived as a boys sport — the Brookings junior has ended up carrying a torch.
“She’s been forced into this position basically because she has a love for the sport that’s equal to the greatest loves at this tournament today,” said Coach Scott Miller. “She’s put in that position, and the great thing about her is she doesn’t feel the pressure. She’s just like every other competitor and just wants to win — and she’s getting it done.”
Heaton made history a year ago at the Class A state wrestling tournament, blazing a trail as the first girl in South Dakota history to qualify for the state meet. Heaton finished seventh at 106 pounds.
This weekend, Heaton wrestled her way back to a rematch with Cody BeVier of Rapid City Stevens for the 113-pound consolation championship. In an otherwise close match, BeVier secured a late takedown to take a 6-3 decision and hand Heaton a fourth-place finish.
It’s not the ultimate goal Heaton had in mind, but her sights are understandably set high. This is a wrestler who has won a national title and a world championship in international competition against other girls.
“She’s paid the price — she works like everyone else,” said Roosevelt coach Darrell Kortan. “Equality is all she’s asked for. Kudos to her — she’s battling.”
Heaton is also in the position of giving up strength in most of her matches. But absent the ability to overpower opponents, her style — shot defense, good top game and mat awareness — has her coming out a winner more often than not.
Heaton’s ascension to fourth place started with a 7-0 decision over Vermillion’s Ryne Whisler on Friday, before BeVier edged out a 3-2 decision in quarterfinals. At that point, the goal of a 113-pound title pivoted to third place — and, hopefully, a rematch with BeVier.
“I wanted to make finals, but because of that match — it’s fine,” Heaton said. “I’m going to work back to third, and hopefully I’ll see him again and be able to get it back.”
Day Two started fast for Heaton, who earned a 8-0 major decision over Chamberlain’s Max Donovan and followed it up with a 8-2 decision of Lennox’s Jaetin DeCou. In the consolation semifinals, Heaton topped Watertown’s Aydan Mack 6-2.
Against BeVier in the consolation championship, Heaton had things knotted at 2-2 after a third-period escape before a reversal made it 4-2. Another Heaton escape with about 15 seconds left made it one-point match, but BeVier scrambled for and secured a takedown in the closing seconds.
Parts of the crowd at the Rushmore Plaza Civic took to their feet, presumably to congratulate both wrestlers — and to acknowledge the greatest finish by a girl in state history.
Like last year, not everyone approves of her participation, but the number of detractors seems to be decreasing.
Watertown assistant coach Bob Hirsch has watched Heaton come up in the sport, and said she’s earned the respect of fans and opponents.
“She’s a competitor — I don’t see her as a girl,” Hirsch said. “I see her as a competitor. I think that sums it up best.”
Miller sees a change as well.
“When she got into it, people thought it was a gimmick,” Miller said, “but then they see her get on the mat — and she takes lumps just like everybody else does. She’s got cuts around her eyes, bruises here and there and everywhere.
“Ask any of the boys that she’s wrestled — they’ll tell you she’s tough and she’s proved that she’s a wrestler.”
You could ask any of the girls Heaton has faced, too.
In August, Heaton became the first American medalist ever at the 2015 UWW Cadet World Championships in Sarajevo. Heaton scored takedowns and counters in each period to upend Japan’s Saki Igarishi 4-0 and win the freestyle world title.
“I tried to explain to people at school that there’s no girl in the world in the 15-16 age bracket better than her,” Miller said. “You get a sense of, you know, it’s not a state title — it’s a world title. You let that sink in, and it’s an amazing thing.
A state title would look good next to the world title, but Heaton will have to put that goal off for another year. For now, she’s happy to have felt support from the South Dakota wrestling community.
“Everywhere I’ve been going, there’s just people that come up and tell me something nice or that I’ve been doing good. Just the whole environment has been supportive,” Heaton said. “It means a lot to me. It makes me feel really good about being here. Even like … it makes you feel like it’s normal.”
Normal in this context is being recognized as just another wrestler, but Heaton knows that there are still hearts and minds to change. But are there at least inroads being made?
“Well I hope so. I just come out here to wrestle like everybody else,” Heaton said. “I’m just trying to do what I do in the sport that I love — like they do to.”