Showing Their Toughness: Marauders’ Pienkowski, Cougars’ Smith-Foster take second at state


By Rich Torres

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ARCADIA — As Sierra Pienkowski limped up to the winner’s podium inside Hamilton Heights High School on Friday night, both of her opponents reached out a helping hand.

After five hours of competition during the 2021 Indiana High School Girls Wrestling state finals, both third-place Liberty Sutton of Logansport and 138-pound state champion Kaylie Petersen of Evansville Central had Pienkowski’s back.

Unable to walk without favoring her torn left hamstring, Pienkowski wasn’t going to miss out on hopping up and standing tall as a state runner-up.

“She’s just tough. She’s tough as nails. She usually doubts herself, but she’s starting to grow out of it. I’ve seen the change in her,” Mt. Vernon head coach Chad Masters said.

“If she had another week to rest (her hamstring), who knows? But, we didn’t have any time, and, (Petersen) is elite. That girl is really good and we closed the gap in a week, especially with a bad hamstring. I’m really happy with how she wrestled. She should be happy. I think she is because she’s smiling.”

Pienkowski’s grin under her black face covering was beaming as she received her 138-pound runner-up state medal. On the upper-right corner of her mask, gleamed a red heart.

No significance, the Mt. Vernon junior laughs, but at the IHSGW state finals, it personified her passion, motivating her to reach her third straight state appearance and first top-four finish at the fifth annual event.

An eighth-place finisher at state her freshman season at 145 in 2019, and later a seventh-place medalist in 2020 at 138, Pienkowski wore her heart in the open to nearly win the Marauders’ first girls wrestling state title.

“I was determined. I wanted to win that (first match) so bad just to simply get in the top four. That was my main goal. When I won that and got past that, I was ecstatic,” Pienkowski said.

Pienkowski broke through, and she wasn’t the only one from Hancock County.

Greenfield-Central freshman Kylie Smith-Foster took second at 98 pounds in her first appearance, while Cougars’ teammate Livia Quigley, a junior, finished third at 145 in her second trip to state.

New Palestine freshman Sydney DeLois was fourth at 113, and fellow Dragon Kayleigh Kirkwood, a sophomore, made the most of her opportunity placing fifth at 138, a year after missing out at state by one placement.

“Last year, I got fifth (at regional). I lost my last match to get here, so this year, I was like let’s go. You got to bring it this time,” Kirkwood said. “I made it, and I didn’t make it as far as I wanted to, but I got a little bit left. I’m excited.”

Kirkwood scored some revenge, defeating Lebanon’s Emerson Wolfbrandt by fall in 37 seconds to win the fifth-place consolation match. At the IHSGW South Regional, she lost to Wolfbrandt by pin in 1:50 to place fourth while qualifying for state.{p dir=”ltr”}“Right before the match, I said, ‘We got this match, right?’ And, she said, ‘Yes, I can’t lose.’ That’s what I wanted to hear,” New Palestine coach Jason DeLois said. “It was good stuff.”

There was heartbreak and success. Tears and celebrations. Being a female wrestler isn’t easy, but on Friday night, toughness was put on display.

Pienkowski’s journey gave onlookers a mere glimpse.

After qualifying for state as a freshman, Pienkowski suffered a knee injury during the state tournament to compound an already separate meniscus tear she endured that season.

“After going through meniscus and ACL surgery and having to live with that for two years, it felt amazing just to reach my goal tonight of getting a higher placement,” Pienkowski said. “It felt great. Even though I got second place, it’s amazing in my mind. I love it.”

The injury two years ago required corrective surgery, which was performed by Shelbourne Knee Center surgeons. She went through extensive rehab and physical therapy to get back.

“People who had ACL surgeries before told me I probably wouldn’t get back to wrestling in a year, maybe two years,” Pienkowski said. “I got back on the mat in six months. I had the surgery around the spring.”

Much like two years ago, Pienkowski was faced with adversity, once again.

Suffering a hamstring injury during the Maconaquah JV tournament the day after placing second at the South Regional at Franklin Community High School last Friday night, Pienkowski was worried entering state.

“She was worried because with the hamstring she was basically off the whole week. I told her, you’re going to be fine because we can’t push that injury. We just need to win the first one,” Masters said. “If you win the first one, it’s house money after that. At that point, why not be in the finals? And then, today, let’s win the thing. We just came up a little short.”

Pienkowski made her intentions clear with a 17-2 technical fall in the opening round at state over Rochester’s Mikaila Weightman and then followed up with a 3-1 decision in the semifinals against Sutton.

Her run ended under the championship spotlight against Petersen, who won by fall in 4:32, but Pienkowski didn’t surrender.

Down 4-0 in the first period, she scored an escape. A quick reversal at the buzzer to end the second period made it an 8-3 deficit that she cut to 8-4 with a slick escape.

“I wanted it really badly, and I couldn’t just let it happen,” Pienkowski said. “Despite not being to practice all week because of having to heal my hamstring, I suddenly got a burst of energy and wanted to win.”

She almost did. The same for Smith-Foster, who pinned Central Noble’s Angelina Clay in 1:09 during the first round and won by decision 2-1 over Jay County’s Lizzie Dollar in the semifinals.

Smith-Foster lost by fall in 23 seconds in the finals to top-ranked Alexie Westfall, but she knows there’s more ahead.

“It’s a pretty good experience. Now, I know what to prepare myself for next year. I’m just happy that I made it this far,” Smith-Foster said. “I’m pretty mad, but I’m happy for her because she’s a senior and she deserves it, but yeah, I’m pretty mad.”

She made her point, though, as a state medalist in a sport many in the past felt wasn’t a place for female athletes.

Not anymore.

“You’ll definitely have times when you feel like you can’t do anything. You’re down in the dumps and you have all this pressure from these strong men in this sport. It’s difficult, but you get right back on your feet and me personally, I want to prove them wrong,” Pienkowski said. “I want to prove that a female can do a male sport just like any other male. I know we have our biological differences, but we can do it the same. So, my motivation is to stay up there with the guys and I feel like I’ve got it.”