The toughest opponent Fort Osage freshman wrestler Haley Ward faced during an undefeated season was the flu.

The night before her biggest match, the 130-pound state championship bout at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, she experienced flu-like symptoms.

“I was so sick, I just went out into the hall of the hotel we were staying and sat on the floor for about an hour wondering what was going to happen the next day when I had to wrestle,” said Ward, a unanimous selection as The Examiner’s 2019-20 Girls Wrestler of the Year.

“I felt really bad, had a sore throat and chills, but nothing was going to keep me from wrestling in the championship match – NOTHING!”

As it turned out, Ward was suffering from strep throat, but 1 minute and 25 seconds after she stepped on the mat in the title match, she pinned Plattsburg’s Kaylie Down to become the first female state wrestling champion in Indians history.

“She is so tough, and such a competitor, it would have taken an army to keep her off the mat in the championship,” Fort Osage girls wrestling coach Derrick Barker said.

“We knew we were getting something special when Haley came to Fort Osage with all her AAU success and winning a gold medal in the Pan American Games, but I don’t think any of us knew she would be as dominating as she was.”

Ward was 36-0, with 32 pins. Many of her matches were finished so quickly, Barker told her that she had to take an opponent down four times before she could apply the pin.

“We joke about that now,” Ward said, “because I wanted to go out and get the match over as soon as possible, but he wanted me to get some extra work in, too.”

Barker said there are a number of reasons for Ward’s success.

“First of all, she has the talent and she has been wrestling a long time,” he said. “It’s funny, if you saw her in the hallway in street clothes, you might think she was athletic, but you would not immediately think she was an undefeated state wrestling champion.

“And she is competitive – oh, is she competitive. I don’t believe I’ve ever worked with anyone who has her competitive drive.”

And that’s what is making her time away from training, during the battle to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus, so frustrating.

“I’m going crazy!” she said. “We have weights at my house and I’m working out a lot, but I want to get back on the mat. I know this is all something new, but I can’t wait for it to all end.”

Before the start of her freshman year, in a cool, calm, collected voice she said she wanted to be an undefeated state champion.

“I meant it,” she said. “I really thought I could go undefeated and win a state championship. And now that I have one, my next goal is to go undefeated again next year – and hopefully undefeated all four years with four state championships.

“That would be the perfect way to end my high school career. But right now, I want to thank everyone who voted for me and supported me this year and I’m honored to win this award.”