Ridaught: Girl power heads to state

Bradford (Starke), which won the Class 1A Girls Weightlifting state title last year, is sending three girls to Saturday's state meet in Lakeland. (L-R) Allie McFarland, Rylie Blankenship, and Takkerria Bakken.
Courtesy of Bradford High School Yearbook Staff

If you don’t know much about girls weightlifting, it’s possible that you did hear of Mahailya Reeves, who closed out her high school career with four straight titles.

Last year, after transferring to Bradford (Starke) as a senior, she broke her own Florida state record with 570 pounds total, including a 380-pound bench press.

But it was while she was at Union County (Lake Butler) that she exploded on the scene.

Although only 15 years old at the time, Reeves became the strongest female in America with a bench press of 360 pounds to break the national record.

Reeves is now representing the USA and is a role model for girls in the area.

They have dreams, like Reeves, heading into this Saturday’s FHSAA Girls Weightlifting Finals in Lakeland, including Bradford teammates Allie McFarland, Rylie Blankenship and Takkerria Bakken.

Gainesville High's Emilia McKittrick
Courtesy of Stephen Bauer Gainesville High’s Emilia McKittrick

The trio will compete in the Class 1A competition.

Last year, the Tornadoes won the traditional-style weightlifting championship to capture their first-ever state title, while Suwannee (Live Oak) defended its state title by winning the snatch competition.

Not all schools in the area have girls weightlifting, making a state title even more special.

Only 20 schools in the Mainstreet Daily News coverage area compete in girls weightlifting and most are in Class 1A.

Buchholz is the only school in the area that competes in Class 3A, which is the largest class.

The Lady Bobcats are coached by Michael Rowley, who moved down in May from Georgia when his wife took a job in Gainesville.

While in the Peach State, he served as a strength and conditioning coach at the collegiate level and worked with a wide variety of female athletes such as golf, cheerleading, women’s soccer, and basketball.

Rowley had coached in college since 2011, working at the University of Georgia and Valdosta State, but his last stop was at Warner Robbins in Georgia. 

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Gainesville High's Rianna Griffith
Courtesy of Stephen Bauer Gainesville High’s Rianna Griffith

“Luckily Buchholz was looking for a coach and a P.E. teacher,” he said. 

However, he had never been a girls weightlifting coach. 

“I think it’s been great, it’s been a learning experience,” Rowley said. “We had a larger team this year which I thought was good. First official roster was 32. From where they were last year it’s a substantial increase.” 

He gets to see three of his lifters head to state – seniors Ariana Acosta-Ramirez and Keke Hill, and sophomore Lelia Ricks. 

Acosta-Ramirez was a state runner-up in the 183-pound weight class last year, but injuries kept her from being full strength. 

Now, she’s hoping to finish out her prep career with a state title. 

“I would expect her to do quite well at state,” Rowley said. “She is very determined and meticulous in her approach and that’s not always easy to coach, but I like that. She is very detailed and structured in what she does.” 

Gainesville High's Tiona Simmons
Courtesy of Stephen Bauer Gainesville High’s Tiona Simmons

She holds a 345-pound total in the Olympic competition and a 370-pound total in the Traditional. 

“It’s her niche and she is highly skilled,” Rowley said. “Her approach is phenomenal. It’s not an easy sport. She does her best to treat each day as if there is a goal to attain and she does a great job with that.” 

Hill (310-pounds/360 pounds) will compete in the Unlimited weight class. 

“Keke is our largest personality on the team,” Rowley said. “She is a firecracker. She doesn’t see in herself what I see. She is super strong. If I could get her to hone in on what I see she could go very far in weightlifting.” 

Ricks (Olympic – 260 pounds) will compete in the 129-pound weight class. 

“Lelia is an upper athlete, a jack of all trades who plays volleyball, softball, and travel volleyball,” Rowley said. “She will come into the weight room and then go to softball practice. Her form is very good. She is a natural.” 

Gainesville High's Anyia Anthony
Courtesy of Stephen Bauer Gainesville High’s Anyia Anthony

Meanwhile, Steve Bauer is in his 20th season as head coach at Gainesville High School. As a head coach he is 121-4 overall in dual meets. 

He has been a part of four individual state championships, including three state records. His best team at state finished third. 

GHS, which competes in Class 2A, is sending a total of five lifters to Lakeland. 

As a team, the Hurricanes were the Olympic district champion and Traditional runners-up and their regional team finished as Olympic runners-up. 

“Our season was awesome,” said Bauer, whose team went undefeated during the regular season. “It was the most exciting meets against Buchholz we have ever had. They came over twice and the second time I did a combined Senior Night to try and get the Gainesville community back together. It was great.” 

Bauer singled out his coaches, Deac Story (this year’s state technical controller), Katherine Martinez-Malo, Joe Thomas and Tony Malo. 

“We are getting better every year,” Bauer said. “I’m the luckiest coach in Florida to have this staff for our girls weightlifting team. Girls weightlifting is taking over the weightlifting world. “We had 41 young ladies out this year. This year is also the first time that state totals will be considered for USAW qualifying.” 

Gainesville High's Ori Sela
Courtesy of Stephen Bauer Gainesville High’s Ori Sela

The five Lady Hurricanes who will compete at state include senior Tiona Simmons, their top lifter, junior Rianna Griffith, sophomore Ori Sela, junior Anyia Anthony, and sophomore Emilia McKittrick. 

Simmons won a district and regional championship in the 154-pound class for both the Olympic and the Traditional, while Griffith, who competed in the unlimited weight division, won a district and regional championship in the Olympic and was district and regional runner up in the Traditional. 

Sela (169-pounds) was a district champion in both and at regional, she finished 5th in the Traditional and got 3rd place in the Olympic), and Anthony (199-pounds) was a district champ in both and at regional finished 3rd in the Traditional and was 2nd place in the Olympic 2nd place), while McKittrick (183-pounds) was a district runner up and at regional finished 5th in the traditional and 5th in the Olympic competition. 

It’s time for the girls to show their power. 

It’s also another opportunity to showcase a sport that is sometimes seen as a means to compete in another sport. 

“It’s one that I hope grows,” Rowley said. “Weightlifting is more than just moving weights. There is a lot of technique involved. It’s an Olympic sport. It shouldn’t be a backburner sport or one where you are lifting just to participate in another sport.” 

Bauer definitely sees potential. 

“I feel that from when I started in 2003 to where the sport is now, it has grown tremendously and the sky is the limit,” he said. 

There will be a lot of great athletes at tomorrow’s event. For a complete list of qualifiers at this year’s state finals, visit the FHSAA

Good luck to all the participants.

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