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High school star Cejudo strikes gold at U.S. Nationals

LAS VEGAS - Has a high school kid ever won the freestyle division at the U.S. National Championships?

Nineteen-year-old Henry Cejudo of the Sunkist Kids had an abundance of people scrambling to find the answer late Saturday night after he downed Matt Azevedo of the Sunkist Kids to capture the 121-pound title at the Las Vegas Convention Center

The prep senior from Colorado Springs entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed. He knocked off No. 2 Luke Eustice of the Hawkeye Training Club in the semifinals before earning a 0-1, 2-1, 4-2 win over the No. 1 Azevedo in the finals.

Cejudo is believed to be the first high-schooler to win the U.S. Nationals in freestyle since USA Wrestling became the national governing body in 1983.

"All I do is train freestyle," Cejudo said. "The Russians do it, why not me. I just tried to wrestle my match and not worry too much about what (Azevedo) was doing."

The aggressive, attacking style of Cejudo makes him a threat to make a run at 2000 Olympic silver medalist Sammie Henson at the World Team Trials on May 27-28 in Sioux City, Iowa.

Henson sat out the U.S. Nationals, but will be back for the World Team Trials and will be the favorite at 121 pounds. Henson made the World Team in 2005 and would have been the No. 1 seed in Vegas had he entered.

A total of eight wrestlers successfully defended their titles at the U.S. Nationals.

Defending their crowns in freestyle were Chris Bono of the Sunkist Kids (145.5), Mo Lawal of the Gator Wrestling Club (185), Daniel Cormier of the Gator Wrestling Club (211.5) and World bronze medalist Tolly Thompson of the Sunkist Kids (264.5). Cormier won the U.S. Nationals for the fourth consecutive year while Bono and Thompson won for the third time and Lawal earned his second title.

Repeat champions in Greco-Roman included 2005 World bronze medalist Justin Ruiz (211.5) and 2002 World champion Dremiel Byers of the U.S. Army (264.5). Ruiz won this event for the third straight year while Byers collected his sixth gold medal at the U.S. Nationals.

Repeating their titles in women's freestyle were Sally Roberts of the Gator Wrestling Club (130) and Kristie Marano of the New York Athletic Club (158.5). Marano won her eighth U.S. Nationals title by pinning Stephany Lee in the final round. Roberts won her third U.S. Nationals title.

The top seven finishers in men's freestyle and Greco-Roman in each weight class qualify for the World Team Trials. The top seven women's freestyle finishers in each class advance to the World Team Trials on June 30 in Colorado Springs. Champions from the World Team Trials advance to the World Championships on Sept. 26-Oct. 2 in Guangzhou, China.

Outstanding wrestlers were Sharon Jacobson of the USOEC/Gator Wrestling Club in women's freestyle, Jacob Clark of the U.S. Marine Corps in Greco-Roman and Donny Pritzlaff of the New York Athletic Club in freestyle.

The No. 2 Jacobson pinned unseeded Malinda Ripley of the Sunkist Kids in the 121-pound women's freestyle finals.

"I just stayed calm and focused on my match," Jacobson said. "I just kept attacking and putting the pressure on her."

Clark pulled off a mild upset in the finals when he edged 2004 Olympian and three-time World Team member Brad Vering in the 185-pound Greco-Roman title match. Clark placed second to Vering in the 2004 Olympic Trials and 2005 World Team Trials.

One of the biggest upsets came in the 163-pound finals when Pritzlaff knocked off two-time World bronze medalist and six-time U.S. Nationals champion Joe Williams of the Sunkist Kids. Pritzlaff won the match when Williams stepped out of bounds with seven seconds left in the third period after they were involved in a scramble.

"This is important to win right now," Pritzlaff said, "but it will be more important in May."

Zach Roberson won his first freestyle title at 132.5, knocking off defending champion Michael Lightner in the finals. Also winning titles in Greco-Roman were Lindsay Durlacher of the New York Athletic Club (121), Marcel Cooper of the U.S. Army (145.5) and T.C. Dantzler of the Gator Wrestling Club (163).

Durlacher, a 2005 World Team member, won this event for the first time. He was second in this event the last three years. Cooper won the U.S. Nationals for the second time.

The balance of the women's champions included Clarissa Chun of the Sunkist Kids (105.5), Patricia Miranda of the Sunkist Kids (112), Sara McMann of the Sunkist Kids (138.5) and Katie Downing of the Sunkist Kids (147.5). Chun won her first title after finishing second in Vegas four times. Miranda won this tournament for the fourth time and McMann won for the fifth time. Downing won it for the second time.

The flashy Lawal swept 2004 U.S. Nationals champion Lee Fullhart of the Gator Wrestling Club in the finals. Lawal is considered a prime candidate to contend for a World medal this year after competing in his first World meet last year.

"I'm not looking for bronze or silver," Lawal said of his aspirations at the World level, "I'm all about going after the gold."

Dantzler, a three-time World Team member, wore a huge smile after edging Keith Sieracki in the finals. Dantzler won his first U.S. Nationals title after placing second on three occasions and third in five other trips to Vegas.

Thompson beat Mocco in the finals for the second straight year. Thompson won a coin flip at the end of a scoreless third period with the match going to a leg clinch. Thompson snatched Mocco's right leg in the clinch and quickly dumped him to the mat to win the bout.

The 32-year-old Thompson hopes to make his second straight World team.

"Winning the national title is huge, it's another stepping stone to making the World team," Thompson said. "I'm looking forward to getting another shot at those guys at the World Championships."
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