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ATLANTIC CITY – The NJSIAA girls wrestling state tournament is just two years old but the Shore Conference already has its first superstar.

Manalapan junior Jessi Johnson completed an unbeaten season and captured her second straight state championship when she defeated West Orange’s Precious Opara, 7-2, in the 151-pound state final on Saturday afternoon at Boardwalk Hall.

“I was able to show what I’m made off and all the hard work I put in,” Johnson said. “Everything paid off.”

As the South Region champion, Johnson received a bye into the semifinals where she built an 8-0 lead before pinning High Point’s Sophia Lombardo in 2:49 to reach the championship bout. In the final, Johnson took Opara down 32 seconds into the match but a locking hands call against her cut the lead to 2-1.

Johnson took bottom to start the second period and escaped to take a 3-1 lead. She added another takedown to stretch her lead to 5-1 heading into the third. Opara chose bottom in the third and Johnson never let her get out, riding her while working toward nearfall points and eventually securing two back points with 26 seconds left.

“It was definitely the most exhilarating match since it went the distance,” Johnson said. “She put up a good fight. It was good to finally get someone I can go the distance with and show my skill off.”

Johnson was a Fargo All-American the summer before her sophomore year. Before New Jersey sanctioned girls wrestling in September 2018, those national-level tournaments were the only opportunities for girls like Johnson to compete at a high level. That all changed last season and Johnson has certainly made the most of the exposure.

“I want to go far with wrestling, not just wrestle in high school, so it’s great to get as much experience as I can and enjoy the moment,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to come by and we’re lucky this is a thing now in Jersey.”

Photo by Richard O'Donnell.

The experience in Atlantic City was also a little different this year. For one, the competition was better across the board. Johnson has been wrestling since the seventh grade but many others just started out last season. Also, the girls finals were contested on the center mat this season all by themselves whereas last year they ran simultaneously with the boys semifinals.

“It felt great being able to look up and see everyone cheering me on or cheering for the other girl,” Johnson said. “It was great to have that moment.”

Next year Johnson will seek to end her career as a three-time state champion before she heads off to college. Part of her wishes girls wrestling became sanctioned a year earlier and she would have the opportunity to be a four-time champ, but mostly she’s grateful for the opportunity.

“It would have been great to be a year younger but I’m lucky I got to do it in the first place,” Johnson said. “Three times, four times, it doesn’t matter.”

The Shore Conference had three state finalists and 12 total medalists. Jackson Memorial’s Avery Meyers and Jordyn Katz finished second at 128 and 143 pounds, respectively. Jackson Memorial’s Skyelar Smith was third at 135 and Central Regional freshman Jayla Hahn was third at 143. Finishing fourth were Lakewood’s Estefani Cortez at 114 and Lakewood’s Ana Gonzalez at 161. Placing sixth were Manalapan’s Julia Manolas at 107, Lakewood’s Jessica Rivera at 121 and Jackson’s trio of Abigail Stanberry (151), Madison Pesavage (161) and Gina Novello (180).

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.