Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Triumph through tears: The tenacious tale of Flower Mound’s female wrestlers

Lillian Zapata clearly remembers the moment that changed the trajectory of her wrestling career.

Competing in the state tournament against a senior who had already beaten her four times, she was not expecting anything special.

“I didn’t have much hope for the match,” Zapata said. “But I decided it was all or nothing.”

The contest was intense, back and forth, her clawing her way to whatever points she could muster, and when she looked up at the scoreboard at the beginning of the third period, she was leading 8-6.

“I remember how much yelling was coming from my opponent’s coaches,” Zapata said.

That’s when it happened.

In the final period, Zapata got a reversal and pinned her opponent for the victory.

“I literally got up and jumped in the air,” Zapata said. “I got my hand raised, ran and shook the other coach’s hands and then ran into my sister’s arms. I just began to cry because I was so overwhelmed with emotion and so glad I could share this experience with my older sister.”

Her sister, Evelyn, was also once a Lady Jags wrestler as well.

The Flower Mound girl’s wrestling program has come a long way in its first seven years.

Following its inception in the 2016-17 season, the team has experienced steady and continual improvement, culminating in a 2022-23 campaign in which Zapata, Isabella Silva, Gwendolyn Musser and Siddie Hoffen all qualified for the state tournament.

Coach Tiffany Mangini said she is impressed by the progress her team is making and excited about what 2023-24 holds in store.

“To have four girls not only qualify for the state tournament but compete in 2023 is amazing,” Mangini said. “It was a no-brainer throughout the season that these four girls were not only going to make it, but be able to compete at the tournament. Each girl overcame some form of adversity throughout the season, pushing through and showing just how much grit they possessed.”

And a tremendous amount of grit and fortitude was indeed necessary.

Zapata competes in the 100-pound weight class and won a district championship, placed third at region and went 2-2 in the state tournament to finish in the top eight for the Lady Jags.

Zapata’s cousin, Angie, and older sister, Evelyn, both wrestled at Flower Mound under coach Mangini and are the reason that she wrestles.

Laser focused on her goal of returning to state again this season, Zapata said she owes a debt of gratitude to wrestling for helping her improve as a student and an athlete.

“This sport has taught me dedication, discipline and to give everything your all,” Zapata said. “Prior to wrestling, I was pretty lazy. I was a B-average student who was okay with doing the bare minimum. With wrestling, I learned early on that if you do the bare minimum, you won’t get very far.”

In the 120-pound weight class, Silva finished fifth at state in 2023 in just her second full season of high school wrestling, and Mangini said the sport seems to come naturally to Silva.

“Bella has a background in BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) with her family owning Silva BJJ in Lewisville,” Mangini said. “She grew up competing on the big stage. Therefore she looked natural wrestling in the big competitions.”

Silva, 16, a devout Christian who said wrestling has actually helped her relationship with God added that her most memorable moment on the mat was a good lesson in perseverance.

“We were at regionals last year, and I don’t remember what match it was, but I was on my back,” Silva said. “I remember almost giving up, but I had this distinct moment when I chose to fight, and not give up the match. I decided to fight with everything I had, and if I remember correctly, I ended up winning the match.”

The Flower Mound junior’s mantra is “trust what you know,” and she regularly uses this to overcome intrusive thoughts before competitions.

“The mind is a dangerous place and it messes with you a lot,” Silva said. “It can cause you to lose a match—not because of what the other person does, but because you get in your own way. I try to get my mind right by creating a routine. I go through a sequence of movements and motions that allow me to prepare for the match so that my mind is in a better place.

“I listen to worship music before I put my headgear on. I do the same warm-up every time, and I pray a lot. I frantically pray before every match. Having that routine helps me from getting in my own way.”

Hoffman, 18, also struggles mentally before and occasionally during matches and was having an extremely difficult time in the contest that would determine whether or not she qualified for the state tournament.

“My mind had shut down for some reason,” Hoffman said. “I was up against the girl I had already wrestled and won against the week prior. I was ready to quit and be done, but my coach threw me out there. I have a history of panic attacks, and I started having one in the middle of this match.”

It was so severe, that Hoffman, who competes in the 165-pound weight class, was hyperventilating, crying, and stumbling around the mat.

“I felt there was no way I’m winning this match until I just flipped a switch in my mind,” Hoffman said. “I was ready to wrestle with two minutes left. I was down by two. I was on the bottom and my mind was in a fog, and I couldn’t even hear my coach talking like I usually do.

“I start throwing my body around any which way just to get this girl off of me. We kept going out of the circle and each time I would find my way back to the center through tears in my eyes.”

With 20 seconds remaining in the match, Hoffman hit a Peterson wrestling move but was not quite able to secure the fall against her opponent.

“I was so relieved the match was over even though I was certain I lost,” Hoffman said. “I shake the girl’s hand and told her she deserved this. I find out seconds later when the ref raises my hand that I had won. I thought it was a mistake. I ran to the corner and finished crying when Coach came and hugged me and told me she was so proud of me, and I was going to state.”

For Musser, 16, the sport of wrestling has changed her entirely as a person, as she has become more motivated, more selfless and overall, “a nicer person to others.”

“Being on a team was an entirely new dynamic for me,” Musser said. “But it’s given me a second family.”

Musser, 16, is proud of the tradition that has been established with the Lady Jaguars wrestling program and said she tries to impart some of the things she has learned to help her younger teammates thrive.

And it’s often more about attitude than the sport itself.

“It is best to act like yourself and connect with people that like you for you and not pretend to be something you’re not,” Musser said. “Wrestling, even though it’s important, doesn’t dictate your self-worth. We support you no matter what because things happen. People lose matches, and teammates fight, but you must be able to separate that and learn to grow from it. I want the younger girls to know that.”

Mangini said she is probably the most proud of the manner in which Musser handled herself in the face of multiple challenges.

“Last year was such a growing year for Gwen,” Mangini said. “At every turn, we were looking to overcome a different obstacle. She had everything from pins being called, only to be called back, to having more than a handful of girls calling injury time while she was pinning them.

“Last season was a roller coaster of emotions for us, thinking we won, to moving into overtime and everything in-between. She as well was able to come back to defeat a girl she had lost to previously.”

Musser finished with the team’s most wins in a single season, with an overall record of 53-19.

Flower Mound finished 13th overall at state last year out of 102 programs, and Mangini said in 2023-24, she would like for there to be a couple of important takeaways.

“My goal is for each girl to take what I have taught them each season and apply it to everyday life,” Mangini said. “My goal is for them to grow both on and off the mat. Lily and Siddie (both seniors) are looking to continue wrestling next year (in college), and I would love to see that happen.

“As far as the goal for the two juniors; confidence in themselves and their abilities. And a final goal is for those two to soak in as much as they can from our senior class so they may lead when it’s their turn.”

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