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Girls wrestling season preview spotlight: Multi-sport athlete Schaljo makes immediate impact on mat for McCluer North

Girls wrestling season preview spotlight: Multi-sport athlete Schaljo makes immediate impact on mat for McCluer North

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FLORISSANT — Natalie Schaljo almost felt a need to apologize.

The McCluer North wrestler remembers a brief conversation with one of the meet officials at the last year’s initial Missouri high school girls championship tournament.

Schaljo was set to hop up on the podium to receive her medal for an impressive second-place finish in the 131-pound weight division with the other top finishers when each member of the group was asked how long they have been wrestling.

“One of the girls said, 'Since I was 8 (years old),' ” Schaljo recalled. “Another said sixth grade, then another fifth grade.”

Schaljo’s answer stunned her competitors.

“About four months,” she said. “That definitely got a shocked reaction.”

Yes, in around 120 days, Schaljo went from knowing nothing about the sport to becoming a contender for a state championship.

District 2 Tournament

McCluer North's Natalie Schaljo (right) tangles with Fort Zumwalt West's in the championship match at 131 pounds at the District 2 Tournament on Saturday, February 2, 2019 at Fort Zumwalt North High School in O'Fallon, Mo. Paul Kopsky, STLhighschoolsports.com

Now a junior, Schaljo is looking forward to taking the next step as she enters her second season of competitive wrestling. Like last year, she will be butting heads with girls who have been competing on the club level for as many as eight or nine seasons.

“I never even watched a wrestling match before last year,” Schaljo said. “I had no idea about anything. I went in completely blind.”

Schaljo learned quickly. And her meteoric rise has turned heads throughout the state.

After last year’s breakout performance, she is hoping to grab the attention of college coaches in a fast-rising sport. She desperately wants to claim the title she left on the mat at Mizzou Arena in February.

“At first, I had no idea what to expect,” Schaljo said. “But I started winning and that helped me like it. I want to just keep on getting better.”

Schaljo, a consummate multi-sport standout, decided to add wrestling to her repertoire at the request of McCluer North boys and girls wrestling coach Jake Lapinski. He knew Schaljo competed as a hockey goaltender on the club level and also was aware she played golf and ran cross country. Plus, she also played basketball, soccer and lacrosse several years ago.

“I heard she was a pretty tough kid,” Lapinski said. “A bunch of the other coaches around here said she would be perfect. I approached her and she seemed to like the idea.”

Schaljo simply wanted to add another sport to her lengthy resume.

“I thought it would be cool — something new,” she said. “It was an opportunity I shouldn't pass up.”

Natalie Schaljo

Francis Howell North goalie Natalie Schaljo deflects a shot during a game on Monday, December 2, 2019 at Kennedy Recreation Center. Schaljo is a McCluer North student and a wrestling standout at her home school. Paul Halfacre, STLhighschoolsports.com

She is happy she took the plunge.

Starting literally from scratch, Schaljo, with guidance from Lapinski, sharpened her skills. Just 34 days into the season, Schaljo took the championship at the prestigious Kyle Thrasher Invitational.

Schaljo went on to capture the district crown before heading to the state tournament.

“I still wasn’t convinced how good I was or what I’d be able to do,” she said. “I didn’t think I was ready for (a state meet). But I surprised myself.”

After a first-round bye at state, she pinned Emily Light of St. James in 2 minutes and 48 seconds before knocking off Kaylie Dow of Plattsburg in 2:44.

The run came to an end when Quincy Glendenning of Lebanon pinned Schalko at 3:47 of the championship match. Glendenning, a veteran club wrestler, finished fourth in the state in the Under-10 division in 2015.

“At the start of the year, I was so nervous, mainly because I didn’t know what to expect,” Schaljo said. “I just kept working and working at it. It wasn’t easy, but it was so rewarding.”

Schaljo’s transformation from neophyte into state contender did not come as a surprise to her teammates.

“She was so impressive,” said McCluer North senior Tristan Paige Folkner, who finished fourth at state at 121 pounds. “I think since she played a lot of male sports, like hockey, it helped her.”

Schaljo, who fashioned a 28-4 record last season, has five siblings and they were all involved with sports. Her mother, Christina, was certain her daughter could make the transition into a new activity.

“She just picked it up like it was nothing,” Christina said. “The same thing when she first tried basketball. It just came to her. Same with wrestling.”

Schaljo is one of two starting goaltenders for the Francis Howell North hockey team. She made 27 saves, two of the highlight-reel variety, in a 3-3 tie with Eureka on Monday. Her sister, Tommie, a freshman, also is on the team.

Actually, Natalie had the majority of her athletic success on the ice before jumping into wrestling. She backstopped the Twin Bridges boys club team to a state title two years ago.

But now, wrestling has piqued her interest. Thanks to her rapid development in a short amount of time, she said she realizes her college future could be on the mat.

All of a sudden, a sport she knew little about 13 months ago has taken a major role in her life. She likes to promote wrestling at every opportunity and even takes jabs at those who make fun of girls who wrestle.

"Someone in class once told me that I didn’t look like a wrestler,” she recalled. “How stupid. I just said, 'What's a girl wrestler supposed to look like?' ”

At 5-feet-2, Natalie is a bundle of energy just waiting to pounce. She has even become a promoter of the sport, taking time to talk to other girls about potentially coming out for the squad, which finished fourth in the team race at state last season.

“Someone like her that’s in great shape and goes hard the whole match, there’s no telling how far she can go with this,” Lapinski said. “She’s only going to get better and better.”

GIRLS WRESTLERS TO WATCH

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