‘The girls won her over’: Vernon wrestler Caitlin Hart places fifth in State Tournament

Vernon. Girls’ wrestling takes off in Vernon, as Coach Ashley Iliff goes all in to perpetuate the sport.

| 16 Mar 2022 | 06:48

Caitlin Hart, a freshman at Vernon High School, was seeded fifth and finished fifth in the 185-pound weight class at the State Girls Wrestling Tournament.

She’s the first girl in Vernon’s history to place in the States, and the first wrestler from Vernon, boys and girls included, to place since 2007. In addition to wrestling, she also plays soccer and lacrosse.

Caitlin said she was a little nervous at the beginning, because she’d never wrestled in her life. “Coach Iliff persuaded me to try it, and I’m so glad she did,” she said. “It’s really fun and I enjoy doing wrestling with the other girls on the team. Coach Iliff is my favorite coach I’ve ever had for any sport in my life. She’s a really great coach and has helped me learn a lot.”

Caitlin started off her freshman year in Coach Ashley Iliff’s science class at Vernon High School.

“I already had Caitlin’s sister, Madalyn Hart, on my wrestling team last year and was looking to recruit her to join the minute I found out she was in my class,” Iliff said. “Caitlin was on the fence about joining the team, but in the end, the girls won her over.”

During Iliff’s first year at Vernon, she co-coached the middle school and volunteered to build the school’s first ever female wrestling team. Vernon is now in its third year with an established female team making strides in the wrestling community. “I have watched many of these females grow tremendously as young women,” Iliff said.

Caitlin is an all-around athlete. This season she went from success to success and rolled right into the regional tournament. She placed second in Bayonne, the first tournament of the year — and also her first time stepping foot on a competition mat.

“Caitlin continued placing in every tournament she competed in,” Iliff said. “Going into the regional tournament, Caitlin was seeded fourth and ended with a third-place finish going 4-1 on the day.”

Her only loss was to the senior Amanda Pace, the eventual region champ who is undefeated this season.

Three to watch

Caitlin is one of three very successful freshmen this year, Iliff said. “Natalie Tucker and Charlotte Flatt also found success their first year at the high school level.”

Natalie Tucker isn’t new to wrestling, though she took a year off from the sport in eighth grade.

“She hit the ground running this year with her first competition placing second at Bayonne,” Iliff said. “Natalie placed in every tournament of the year, developing her technique at the high school level.”

Natalie took second at HWS, first at Bloomfield, and a fourth at the BCWCA. Iliff said she held a 21-8 record going into the region tournament with a loaded weight class. Natalie’s only losses at the region tournament were to Kayla Vazquez (Kinnelon), the eventual region champ, and Frankie Distel, who placed fourth at the region.

Charlotte Flatt, who is also new to the sport placed fourth at Bayonne, which was her first time ever stepping foot on a competition mat.

She attends Wallkill Valley Regional High School, but since they don’t have a girls wrestling program, she wrestles for Vernon.

“It was the funniest thing,” said her father, Daren Flatt. “I asked her ‘What winter sport are you going to do, Charlotte, swimming or basketball?’ She replied, ‘Wrestling.’ I didn’t even know that was an option. She’d board a bus from Wallkill to Vernon after school for practice. She loves it.”

Charlotte went on to place in every tournament she competed in with a fourth at Bloomfield, third at BCWCA and second in the Elizabeth Tournament, Iliff said. Charlotte held a 14-7 record going into the region tournament, with her only losses being to Isabella Martin (Ridgewood) who received a region sixth, and Makayla Decker (Saint Thomas Aquinas) who went on to receive region fourth.

These three freshmen will certainly challenge each other and grow together in their coming high school years, Iliff said.

Half of north seeded athletes are from Vernon

Joan Vince is another great addition to the Vernon girls’ wrestling team, Iliff said.

“Joan came out for wrestling last year during Covid, and although the season was short, she showed tremendous potential,” she said. “Unfortunately Joan’s season was cut even shorter as Vernon was shut down right before the region tournament last year.”

Joan, a junior, said she joined the team because her sister wrestled for Iliff. “I tried it and loved it but the season got cut short because of Covid,” she said. “It was nice to have a full season and to go to all of the tournaments this year. I would love to wrestle in college.”

Iliff said it took over a year of convincing to get Joan to join, but she has committed to the sport ever since. “Joan has been a stand-out athlete on the team,” she said. “She has placed in every tournament of the year and had a record of 18-7 going into regions.”

Joan placed second at HWS, third at Bayonne, fourth at the BCWCA, and fourth at Bloomfield. She was also a 2021 USA national team qualifier, placing second at USA women’s freestyle states.

Draydon Charman is a senior on the team. “Sectionals was not my best work, but I still had a good year,” she said. “I started wrestling as a sophomore. Coach Iliff would come into the cafeteria and walk up to the girls’ tables at lunch and say, ‘Girls wrestling is so cool.’ That convinced me to go out for the sport.”

Out of the 16 Sussex County girls who were seeded in the north region, eight of them were Vernon athletes.

“Our goal is to help develop Vernon’s women’s wrestling program into a Sussex County powerhouse team and I believe we are doing it,” Iliff said. “Women’s wrestling has taken off in New Jersey and is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years.”

She said girls have a large support system with an amazing group of coaches who stand behind them: Joe Down (head boy’s coach), John Loggie (boys assistant coach), Pat Thompson (volunteer assistant) and Steve Fitzsimmons (middle school coach).

“They have played a big part in helping build the women’s wrestling program,” she said. “The commitment to both boys and girls schedules can be exhausting, but they didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge.”

Coaching alongside her father

Iliff started wrestling when she was five years old. She grew up wrestling boys because wrestling programs for women and girls were rare when she was in high school. “I was one out of a few girls in the entire state to wrestle at the time,” she said. To wrestle after graduation, the closest college she could apply to was King University in Tennessee.

During her wrestling career, Iliff earned countless athletic honors, including being an All American.

She finished her four years at King and moved back to Newton, where she started volunteer coaching. During this period, girls wrestling was sanctioned for the first time.

“I spent the year soaking in the excitement of seeing hundreds of females competing while coaching alongside my father the last two-time state champ for Newton High School and an assistant coach at Newton,” Iliff said.

The next year, she took a teaching and coaching position at Vernon and now coaches on the opposite side of the mat from her father.

“I take a lot of what I learned from the Newton staff and apply it now as a coach,” she said. “Coaches Eric Bollette, Teddy Sibblies, Billy Cuff, Dave Young and my father have had a tremendous impact on both my wrestling and coaching career.”

“Coach Iliff persuaded me to try it, and I’m so glad she did. It’s really fun and I enjoy doing wrestling with the other girls on the team.” Caitlin Hart