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Wellington’s Cullens holds off pin late, wins first state title in OT

The 2021 Kansas Division II Girls State Wrestling Tournament Finals at the Tony's Pizza Events...
The 2021 Kansas Division II Girls State Wrestling Tournament Finals at the Tony's Pizza Events Center in Salina on Friday, February 26, 2021. (Photo: Everett Royer, www.ksportsimages.com)(Everett J Royer | Everett Royer)
Published: Feb. 26, 2021 at 11:19 PM CST
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SALINA, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Last winter, Wellington sophomore Anna Cullens finished 25-2 and took second for 109 pounds at the inaugural all-classes KSHSAA state wrestling meet. Cullens, a former gymnast, bought a wrestling mat in her garage for this season.

“I practice all the time,” Cullens said. “I go to the gym all the time, because I want to be on top of that podium.”

Cullens was ranked No. 1 throughout the winter, earned a top regional wrestler honor, and carried an undefeated record into the Ellis Division II sub-state last Friday. Cullens faced Lakin’s Josiah Ortiz, another perfect wrestler, and gave up a late takedown in a two-point sub-state title loss. Cullens wore a distraught look after the match, including on the awards stand.

This week, Cullens significantly worked on the bottom position in the practice room and her mat. At Friday’s Division II state championship at Tony’s Pizza Events Center, Cullens earned a 6-4 sudden victory in overtime for the 109-pound title against Abilene senior Skyleigh Pflaster.

Cullens is the first Wellington state championship wrestler since Kody Page in 2008. Before then, Josh Clark in ’02 last earned a title, per the kansashswrestling.com database. Pflaster finished 13-3.

“I have been working really hard all year,” Cullens said.

Cullens wore a serious look in pre-match and during the finals, never smiling.

“She’s always that way,” Wellington coach Mitch McComb said. “She’s always focused.”

Cullens led 4-1 when Pflaster gained position with 47 seconds left. Pflaster tried to turn Cullens for the fall and earned three points. Cullens had her right shoulder covered in kinesio tape from a longtime injury.

In a highly athletic move that drew praise from other opposing coaches, especially Rossville’s staff, Cullens managed to keep Pflaster from the pin.

“Girls, women are flexible,”McComb said. “And that means a whole lot. And this is as competitive as the boys that will happen tomorrow – especially these last few weeks. And these girls, they train. They go after it. They work hard. They are in the weight room. Yeah, gymnastics is a lot, just the flexibility.”

With three seconds left in regulation, Cullens lay on the ground, her left shoulder in pain. Her arm was way up around her head to stave off the pin. At times, Cullens’ elbow was at a 90-degree angle.

“Her arm was sore from being almost ripped off,” McComb said.

Cullens slowly came to her feet.

At the 42-second mark in overtime, Cullens rushed Pflaster and earned the takedown for the championship.

“I mostly improved on my bottom position, because if I hadn’t been working on that all week, I would have been pinned by now,” Cullens said.

Cullens kept the same expression when she came over to her coaches. McComb told her, “You can smile.” Afterward, Cullens wore a grin.

“It was amazing,” she said.

This winter, girls’ wrestling split into two classifications. Division I had Classes 6-5A, and Division II with 4-1A. Instead of the normal 16, state brackets were eight wrestlers because of COVID-19 protocol. Wellington finished fourth with 39 points. Baldwin won with 54.5, Pratt second at 49, and Paola took third with 46. Paola was third in the all-classes in 2020.

Cullens finished 31-1 against a challenging field. She won by fall in 32 seconds in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Cullens defeated Columbus sophomore Addison Saporito, 6-1. Pflaster also took a close loss to Ortiz at Ellis. This time, she defeated Ortiz, 7-2.

Entering state, Ortiz, the top wrestler at the Ellis sub-state, was ranked first. Cullens was second, Pflaster third and Saporito fourth.

Cullens first started as a gymnast in Hutchinson. Once sixth grade came, Cullens watched her brothers start wrestling, and thought it was “pretty cool.” When seventh grade occurred, Cullens started wrestling.

“I just have grown to love it,” she said. “So much – and much more, each and everyday.”

Their parents haven’t minded losing some of the garage in the winter. McComb estimates the mat is roughly nine by nine feet.

“They think it’s all right as long as I found something that I really love,” Cullens said.

Cullens’ sister, Isabella, a wrestler, was at state Friday taking pictures. She said Anna was on the garage mat all the time. Notably, the mat was handy last week when Kansas had subzero temperatures for several days.

“That helps a lot,” McComb said. “Because when we get all that freeze and snow and no school for three days, she gets on the phone with her friends and say, ‘Hey, who wants to roll around on my mat?’”

Cullens has teammates and friends, some who don’t even wrestle, come over to the garage. Cullens said they’ve helped her “so much.” In the Wellington room, McComb knew Cullens could wrestle better than the Ortiz loss.

“She didn’t wrestle her match,” McComb said. “Anna is a takedown machine, and she only shot one time last week in the final.”

McComb brought Crusader boy wrestlers who didn’t qualify for state come into the room to help Cullens. The boys helped Cullens, who weighs just 105 pounds, face heavier weighted opponents. McComb told her, “takedowns, takedowns, takedowns.” It paid off in the overtime when she took down Pflaster.

“Get back to your shooting game,” McComb said. “As you can see, that takedown won the state title.”

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