Girls Wrestling: Claudia Heeney named Herald-News Wrestler of the Year

Lockport's Claudia Heeney wins the 130-pound class at the girls wrestling state finals at Grossinger Motor Arena in Bloomington on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

It may seem strange that an injury while performing gymnastics would lead a girl to take up wrestling, but that’s what happened to Lockport’s Claudia Heeney.

“I tried gymnastics when I was younger, and I buckled my elbow,” Heeney said. “That was it for gymnastics.”

Heeney began to follow her parents – Dan and Karrie – to her younger brother Griffin’s wrestling matches and decided she wanted to give that sport a try. Despite her parents’ reservations after the gymnastics injury, they relented.

It turned out to be a good decision. Heeney finished second at the IHSA girls state tournament last season at 125 pounds and this year, went one step further and won the state championship at 130, defeating Collinsville’s Taylor Dawson 4-2 in the championship match. For her efforts, Heeney has been selected as The Herald-News Girls Wrestler of the Year.

Lockport’s Claudia Heeney wrestles Collinsville’s Taylor Dawson in the 130-pound bout at the girls wrestling state finals at Grossinger Motor Arena in Bloomington on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

Oddly enough, an injury suffered while wrestling didn’t deter Heeney from continuing this season.

“I broke my thumb and missed about five weeks,” she said. “I missed all of December and the first week of January. My first week back from the injury was regionals.”

Heeney said that the thumb injury didn’t bother her while she was wrestling.

“I knew it was going to be sore after a match, but once I got on the mat, the adrenaline started and I didn’t feel it,” she said.

Heeney finished her season with a 21-1 record, leaving her with a 63-2 mark in her first two seasons.

Out of all those wins, this season’s state championship stands out the most.

“When I looked at the brackets, I knew I would probably be wrestling Taylor for the title,” she said. “I had lost to her a couple months ago in a freestyle match, so I was pretty nervous.

“Once we got into the state tournament, that nervous energy turned into excited energy. I was excited for the match instead of being nervous about it. My dad said to turn that nervous energy into excitement, and I was ready and pumped for the match.”

Although Heeney has only been in the program for two years, she already has made a mark.

Lockport’s Claudia Heeney (left) competes against Huntley’s Aubrie Rohrbacher during a 130 pound championship match in the Schaumburg Girls Wrestling Sectional at Schaumburg High School on Saturday, Feb 10, 2024.

“Claudia has been an anchor for our program for the last two years,” Lockport coach Nathaniel Roth said. “She is obviously very talented, which helps her legend continue and expand, but it is her attitude and work ethic that really make her a leader for the team. She goes to multiple practices a day some days, and all that time she has put in has paid off in big ways.

“Her being on the team makes the entire team better. She leads by example and brings the rest of the girls on the team together. She helps other girls with technique and pointers for getting better. Having her in the room is like having another coach sometimes. This year’s team was really special. The girls really got along well and meshed together like a well oiled machine. Claudia and her leadership and fun personality was a big reason for that.”

Another testament to her work ethic is the fact that she knows she still has aspects of wrestling that she needs to improve.

“I am more of a reactionary wrestler,” she said. “I will take my shots when I can, but I prefer to see what the other wrestler is going to give me. I want to improve and be able to take the shots without waiting to see what the other person is doing.

“I am probably a better wrestler on the mat because of that. I think being on top is my best position. I feel like I am able to get them to turn over pretty well.”

One thing that Heeney has enjoyed in her career is watching the sport evolve.

“The competition has gotten so much better,” she said. “I really enjoy competing, and there are a lot of girls that are good athletes catching on to wrestling. They have been picking up the sport very quick and making it better and better.

“It’s a lot different in a girls program than boys. Everyone seems to work together a little more and there is a special connection. We are all in it together, and we can all relate to each other. We’re pretty tight-knit, but we can give advice or help each other out and no one is going to be upset. We all still hang out together when we are out of the practice room.”

Heeney said that the self-discipline needed to be a good wrestler has translated into the classroom, where she is a straight-A student.

“It’s not a sport for everyone,” she said. “It takes some mental toughness and discipline. I try to do the same thing in class. If I can practice hard for 2-3 hours a day at wrestling, then I can pay attention for an hour at a time in class. That’s where I am going to learn what I need to get a job and have a career.”