Sunlake girls weightlifting celebrates state title

The Sunlake High School varsity girls weightlifting team perennially has been among the more dominant programs in the area, wielding multiple conference and district titles over the years.

But, their latest feat places them on an entirely new level.

The Seahawks claimed the 2019 FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) Class 2A girls weightlifting state championship, on Feb. 8 in Panama City Beach.

The Sunlake High School varsity girls weightlifting team claimed the Class 2A state championship earlier this month. They join competitive cheerleading as the Sunlake’s only boys or girls sports program to win a state title since the school opened in 2007. (Courtesy of Sunlake High girls weightlifting)

The Seahawks tallied 22 points as a team, besting the second-place finisher, Vero Beach High School (19 points) by 3 points.

The title marked the end of the sport’s longest active streak of consecutive team championships held by Navarre High School — four titles won between 2015 through 2018 — who tied for seventh place with 11 points.

It also marks Sunlake’s second state championship among all boys or girls sports; the school’s competitive cheerleading won a state title back in 2014.

Sunlake’s girls weightlifting program has endured solid finishes in previous years in the state meet — including an eighth-place tie in 2018.

This year’s group, however, featured more than a handful of top-flight performances across multiple weight classes.

Six of Sunlake’s eight state lifters earned points with top-six finishes in the bench press and clean-and-jerk aggregate lifts:

  • Madison Guincho, sophomore—fourth place, 119-pound (170-155—325)
  • Loah Castro, senior—third place, 129-pound (165-160—325)
  • Gianna Levy, junior—fifth place, 139-pound (170-170—340)
  • Juliette Pacheco, junior—second place, 154-pound (205-170—375)
  • Abigail Schmook, junior—fourth place, 183-pound (170-170—340)
  • Antoinette Farmer, junior—second place, 199-pound (195-170—365)

Sunlake’s other two individual state qualifiers, senior Valerie Busot (129-pound) and junior Brianna Caban (169-pound) tied for seventh and ninth place, in their respective weight classes.

Hoisting the state championship trophy still leaves longtime Sunlake head coach Denise Garcia speechless at times.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Garcia, who’s in her 11th season coaching. “I’m so happy. I sit there sometimes and am like, ‘Holy crap, we just did that with six girls. That’s amazing.’”

Absent of any individual state champions this year, Garcia noted the team’s strategy was to “nickel and dime” its way to the 2A crown.

And that they did.

“It’s about placing. If you have enough girls where you can accumulate points, then you’re going to win. And, we won by three,” Garcia explained.

Entering the 2018-2019 season, the coach had an inkling she had a special group on her hands.

Garcia saw the team had the drive, attitude and work ethic required to contend for a state title, alongside natural ability, and mastering the sport’s techniques and fundamentals.

“They wanted it so bad,” Garcia said. “The key is being coachable and accepting everything I give them, and all of them did it. …I’ve always said we’re the hardest working team.”

The coach credited the leadership of the team’s two captains — senior Loah Castro and junior Antoinette Farmer.

Garcia noted both helped keep the team’s entire roster of 32 girls in check through encouragement and positivity.

“You’ve got to have leaders,” Garcia said. “The captains, I think, really made a difference. They help their teammates. It’s like having another coach there.”

Castro joined the weightlifting team her sophomore year.

While many of her high school peers opted for traditional sports like softball or volleyball, she wanted to try something different.

Said Castro: “When I first started I didn’t go in thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to win a state title.’ I genuinely wanted to try it because I had never really done a sport before, so I was like, ‘Maybe this is something I could be good at.’”

She surely did — placing at states her junior and senior years.

“It was a lot of hard work,” Castro said. “It’s really a mindset type of thing. Like, this whole sport is a mind game.”

Castro first noticed the team’s potential for a state title at the end of last year’s state meet, realizing there’d be many returning lifters poised to make improvements.

Then, by the time this year’s Sunshine Athletic Conference meet came around — which Sunlake also won — Castro was convinced the team had enough to become state’s top 2A program.

Castro put it like this: “I was like, ‘There’s no way we’re not winning states. We’re going to work way too hard and everything, and, there’s no way we’re not taking the title.’”

Just like her coach, Castro is in awe being able to say she’s a member of a state championship program.

“It’s so surreal, especially because it’s my senior year,” Castro said. “I call us the dream team.”

Weightlifting was a relatively new venture for the team’s other captain, too.

Farmer’s sights were originally set on playing basketball in high school.

However, she was encouraged to give lifting a try by Sunlake graduate and family friend Brianna Anderson, who won the 183-pound state weightlifting title as a senior year back in 2016.

Farmer was hooked almost instantly when she tried out as a freshman.

“I didn’t even know that you could do that,” Farmer said of weightlifting. “After my first summer conditioning with coach, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this.’”

Farmer’s performance this season is arguably the most splendid, among her other teammates who placed at states.

That’s because she had surgery on a torn meniscus back in late September, right before the season started.

She methodically worked her way back to full health, to finish state runner-up in the 199-pound division, and set a county record for her weight class with a 180-pound clean.

Farmer remains unsatisfied, though.

The junior is gunning for an individual state title next year — motivated to unseat Niceville High sophomore Melaina Bryant, who edged her by 15 pounds in the bench and 10 pounds in the clean, respectively.

“I’m just a stepping-stone away from that first place,” Farmer said. “I want it.”

Her coach has little doubt it will happen

“She’s going to win next year,” Garcia said, confidently. “She’s closing the gap.”

Sunlake’s Juliette Pacheco is yet another that has a shot to claim an individual title next year. The junior finished state runner-up in the 154-pound division, just five pounds shy of top finisher, Oakleaf High senior Lexi Perez.

“They’re going to both be No. 1,” Garcia proudly said, of Farmer and Pacheco.

In the meantime, Sunlake’s prospect for winning another state crown next year also seems well within grasp.

The Seahawks expect to return every lifter that placed at states, aside from the graduating Castro; several others are projected to step up as well, Garcia said.

“Every year we get better and better,” the coach said. “Next year, it’s going to be even more.”

State results from area weightlifters and teams

Class 2A
Team results
Sunlake High—First place (22 points)
Land O’ Lakes High—10th place (tie) (seven points)
Wiregrass Ranch High—No placing (0 points)

119 pounds
Madison Guincho, sophomore, Sunlake: fourth place; 170-155—325

129 pounds
Loah Castro, senior, Sunlake: third place; 165-160—325
Valerie Busot, senior, Sunlake: seventh place (tie); 155-160—315
Gianina Rios, junior, Wiregrass Ranch: 17th place; 170-0—170

139 pounds
Gianna Levy, junior, Sunlake: fifth place; 170-170—340

154 pounds
Juliette Pacheco, junior, Sunlake: second place; 205-170—375

169 pounds
Veronica Salazar, senior, Land O’ Lakes: first place; 200-185—385
Alyssa Kremer, junior, Land O’ Lakes: seventh place; 200-160—360
Brianna Caban, junior, Sunlake: ninth place (tie); 180-170—350

183 pounds
Abigail Schmook, junior, Sunlake: fourth place; 170-170—340

199 pounds
Antionette Farmer, junior, Sunlake: second place; 195-170—365

Class 1A finals
Team results
Pasco High—14th place (tie) (five points)
Zephyrhills High—14th place (tie) (five points)
Wesley Chapel—No placing (zero points)

Bench press-clean-and-jerk—Total (in pounds)
101 pounds
Prestine Carter, senior, Pasco: second place; 115-135—250

139 pounds
Sarah Davis, junior, Zephyrhills: sixth place; 160-150—310

154 pounds
Kayla Robbins, junior, Zephyrhills: eighth place; 160-150—310

169 pounds
Lakisia Thomas, junior, Zephyrhills: sixth place; 160-165—325
Dinah Harden, senior, Wesley Chapel: 13th place; 145-145—290

199 pound
Cynthia Wilkes, senior, Zephyrhills: 14th place; 155-145—300

Abby Shaffer, senior, Zephyrhills: fourth place; 230-220—450

Published February 20, 2019

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