East’s Leah Edwards leading way as girls wrestling becomes sanctioned sport next season

Published 12:01 am Sunday, April 30, 2023

By David Shaw


GRANITE QUARRY — Anyone who wants to play Follow the Leader will have to line up behind East Rowan’s Leah Edwards.

The 16-year-old is perched on the cusp of stardom after making headlines over the winter, when she captured the school’s first state championship in girls wrestling.

“It’s crazy to think about,” the 114-pound sophomore said during a recent sit-down at East’s fieldhouse. “It didn’t become real until it was. I trained a long time for this, and it was a little nerve-wracking, but I wasn’t surprised because the work is what got me there.”

That work included winning 44 of her 48 matches and disposing of four opponents in February during the final girls wrestling state invitational. It becomes an NCHSAA sanctioned sport next season.

“It’s still early in the (East Rowan) program’s life,” said first-year coach Shane Miller, a 2004 ER graduate and 10-year military veteran. “But a trail is being blazed. Just being visible is a key to its growth. So far Leah has been a cornerstone for us. She wins at a high level, and that’s impressive. She’s proof that you can be successful at this.”

Edwards delivered a convincing argument Feb. 4 at the Greensboro Coliseum Fieldhouse, where she bested a pool of 16 and pinned state-champion Lumberton’s Teresa Canady in 5:22 in the 114 final. It followed a first-round pin against Enloe’s Karuna Das, an 18-1 tech fall against Chapel Hill’s Siena Palmisciano in the quarterfinals and a 5-0 semifinal decision over Cleveland’s Addison Vindigni. The only tournament point scored against Edwards came on a violation — when a referee awarded Palmisciano a point for an illegal hold.

“Well, I love having a challenge in front of me,” she said, sliding attentively to the edge of a chair. “I don’t like getting handed anything. I like to earn it. That’s what wrestling is — earn your spot, win your match.”

It wasn’t always a source of pleasure for Edwards. Raised in a kind family environment, she was persuaded to wrestle by her parents and older brother Shayden — himself a 3A state runner-up at 138 pounds — but as a middle-schooler found herself more enthralled with free-style drawing and playing Go Fish with younger sibling Donovan.

“I didn’t even like wrestling until last year,” she made it known. “That’s when I started getting more matches and having some success. I mean, in sixth, seventh and eighth grades I liked it, but I didn’t take it seriously. I’ve always been athletic and to me, it was just another sport to try.”

The kink in the hose was finding suitable competition. Edwards was a rising-young-star in a male-dominated sport. But as the landscape gradually changed — and North Carolina became one of 38 states to sanction girls’ wrestling—  more female grapplers emerged and developed into worthy rivals.

“I’ve had to go up against a lot of boys,” she said. “And I’ve gotten a lot of strange looks, mostly from guys I was about to wrestle. They thought I was some girl they were going to tear up. They all thought they’d beat me, but found out I was a tough challenge.”

It’s that mental fortitude, that inner drive, that propelled Edwards upward. As a freshman she logged a 35-12 record, placed fourth in the boys Midwest regional and qualified for the state meet. This past season she placed first in six weekend tournaments and was named Most Outstanding Wrestler in five of them. Earlier this month, Edwards was a top-10 finisher at 57 kilograms (125.7 pounds) in the 17-and-under World Trials in Spokane, Wash. She’s currently ranked 17th nationally at 122 pounds by USA Wrestling, the organization that governs freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States. Miller describes her as hard-working, determined, goal-oriented and extremely coachable.

“Put it this way,” he said. “If I had three people with half her skill level, I could probably win a state title.”

Edwards says she’s been influenced and supported by a number of inner-circle friends and coaches, including East Rowan legend Barry Justus. “Coach Justus has always called me a state champion, even when I wasn’t,” she said. “He could envision it already.”

Edwards will participate in a couple of national competitions in May, then spend the rest of summer training, weightlifting and knocking out her customary 250 pushups twice a day. As a junior next winter, she’ll take aim at winning her first sanctioned high school girls’ state championship.

“She has a strong desire to win it officially next year,” noted Miller, an assistant to Tim Pittman at both Salisbury and North Rowan a few years ago. “Leah is one of those once-in-a-coach’s-career type of wrestlers. I’ve had some great athletes with top-notch skills — and she falls right into that category. She counts as one of the elites.”

Personal achievement aside, Edwards feels she carries a bright torch for future female wrestlers.

“I like to inspire,” Edwards chirped, now comfortably sitting cross-legged in her chair. “All these girls who are just starting to wrestle — I want them to know they can do it too. As time passes, a lot more of them are actually going to try. Last year and this year, girls were scared to go out there because they had to wrestle against guys. My advice is to at least give it a try, but be aware it’s not a good fit for everyone. You have to put in the work.”

And that endeavor starts by getting in line behind Edwards.