La Joya Wrestlers

Jaylin Miranda, left, and Nicole Cuellar, right, chalk up their success to their coach, Sean Nelson.

Jaylin Miranda and Nicole Cuellar are just three years into their wrestling careers, but they’ll have the opportunity to compete for the first Division I state title in Prescott on February 8.

The two juniors at Avondale’s La Joya High School are among the final 15 female wrestlers in the state championship tournament after they both finished second place in their weight classes at the January 26 sectional matches to clinch a spot in the final round.

In May 2018, the Arizona Interscholastic Association tabbed girls’ wrestling as its own high school sport. Before the ruling, the only opportunity for females at the high school level was to wrestle boys.

In the sport’s inaugural season at the high school level in Arizona, Miranda and Cuellar are putting the Fighting Lobos wrestling program on the map.

“Arizona just realized girls can wrestle,” La Joya’s head wrestling coach Sean Nelson joked. “The issue is, (girls) didn’t have the opportunity the guys did. So, they’re kind of like the pioneers.”

In Prescott, Miranda and Cuellar will grapple with the other 13 wrestlers in a single-elimination, one-day tournament.

Leading up to the state championship round, a plethora of emotions have consumed the thoughts of the wrestlers – which often results in tears, both girls revealed with a chuckle.

“I’m just really nervous for going to state because it’s the first state with AIA, and when I first heard about it I was really excited, but now that it’s getting closer, it’s like, OK, this is really happening. I’m excited for the opportunity,” Cuellar said.

At the sectionals event, both girls said they were so nervous they cried.

“I was doubting myself leading up to it,” Cuellar said. “I honestly didn’t think I was going to place at it. It was my first year ever for sectionals.”

On a roster of 38 wrestlers at La Joya, just three are girls. But it doesn’t matter, Nelson said, these two are pretty special.

“Being able to show up every day and do that is really teaching self-confidence.

“Wrestling is not easy by any means,” he said. “You’re literally pushing your body to the extreme almost every day – and just showing up every day is telling something about their character. They’re great young ladies. In current days, everybody wants to be alike, and these two young ladies stand out.”

The girls “struggled” through the regular season, Nelson said, because they wrestled boys and girls. But with the regular season in the rearview mirror, they’re zeroed in on delivering their best performance of the season at the state tournament.

“We’re excited,” Nelson said. “We’re just happy for the opportunity. I try to push that as much as possible. Be happy for the opportunity and go out there and do better than your best.”

Before they step foot inside the Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley with dreams of a state title in mind, it’s compelling to trace back to three years ago, when Miranda and Cuellar’s paths had yet to cross.

Cuellar was a freshman at La Joya, who had just been introduced to the sport, thanks to a male cousin who wrestled for a different school. She watched his tournaments and soon after realized she, too, wanted to wrestle.

“I was like, ‘Hey, this would be really cool to start,’” she said. “So, my freshman year I joined, and I got really connected with my team and the coaches and from there on, it was just a sport for me.”

While Cuellar was discovering her love for wrestling, Miranda was attending her freshman year of high school in California. She was just getting familiar with the sport, thanks to a coach who talked her into joining the team after she played on the freshman football team.

“My coach sold me into it, and I fell in love with it,” she said about her school, which had a girls’ wrestling team. “After my first win, I was like, ‘I have to be here.’”

It’s been “about six months now” since Miranda has been enrolled at La Joya, but she’s already spotted a best friend in Cuellar. Because of wrestling, the two have grown to be inseparable.

“Jay is like another sister to me when it comes to wrestling,” Cuellar said. “When I’m at my worst, she’s there to support me.”

Said Miranda: “I want to see her do well, she wants to see me do well. As long as she keeps me pushing, I’ll keep pushing her. We’ve got each other in this.”