Cass incoming freshman Rees dominates on the mat

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Until Kailey Rees' father asked if she wanted to compete in a wrestling tournament the day of her two older brothers' meet, she had never really thought about the sport.

Now, the Cass High rising freshman can't stop thinking about it.

Rees' introduction to wrestling came out of necessity. More specifically, the necessity for her mother to get a moment's peace and not have to chase the then-7-year-old around throughout the tournament.

"She was being a brat," Anne Rees said with a laugh, recalling the day. "... She would go to these tournaments with her brothers, and they were all day. The divisions were spread out, so we had one boy who would wrestle in the mornings and the older one would wrestle in the afternoon.

"She would just be running around there, so it was more like, you know, do you want to do it, because I'm tired of having to [chase you around]. That's just kind of how it was. She was being a brat, so we put her in. ... It kind of stuck at that point."

That's for sure.

After that initial tournament, the biggest moment of her wrestling career didn't happen on the mat. It happened in the stands, and Rees remembers it vividly.

In April 2016, her and her mom attended the Olympic trials in Colorado Springs, and it completely changed her outlook.

"I would say, as her mom, that's when I saw a difference in her," Anne Rees said. "We traveled to the Olympic trials, and that was the first time she had ever seen girls wrestle. To watch her drive after that, when she saw that there was something [she could achieve] that's when she started. From the parent's perspective, looking at the difference in her, that's when it really kicked in that there was something bigger out there. That was a lot of fun to see her go through the Olympic trials."

Kailey Rees, now 13, said the experience gave her something to strive for. She began wrestling competitively from that point forward.

While success at the high-school level would be great, Rees is aiming even higher.

She's incredibly goal-oriented with realistic expectations for most of her events. Rees rarely enters tournaments with a plan to win gold, instead of focusing her efforts on reaching a certain place (i.e. the top six or top three).

She bases it partly on the style, knowing she's better at folkstyle than freestyle. The former is used in high school wrestling and the latter by collegiate women. Freestyle and Greco-Roman are two types of wrestling found at the Olympics.

Even though most of her short- and intermediate-term goals are calculated decisions, there's still room for some big-time dreams that includes making the 2024 Olympics.

"My eyes just lit up and it gave me a different motive and drive that I want to go to the Olympics one day, I want to go to the worlds," Rees said. "It just changed my whole perspective wrestling, so I have these different goals and dreams to make it to the Olympics, to make it to the worlds. It all started there."

Rees finished third in that inaugural baptism-by-fire tournament, despite being moved up into an 8U boys class. She would compete locally in several boys tournaments throughout the early years of her career.

Now, she primarily wrestles against girls with her first truly competitive tournament coming just after the Olympic trials.

"That was an eye-opener for her," Anne Rees said of the first major event. "... You just saw that different level of competition in the other parts of the country. We're like this is the only way you're going to get better. You have to go, and we're going to have to do this. You can't sit in one place and wrestle the same girls over and over and over again."

Those trips across the country for the big girls tournaments have led to Rees earning five All-American honors, which come from placing in the top eight at a national event. Her two most recent came in winning fashion, as she triumphed in a 19U division at a tourney in Michigan and went undefeated during a duals event at Disney to earn another gold medal.

While a majority of her big matches come against girls, Rees still wrestles boys periodically. A vast majority of those come during the school year.

This past winter, she wrestled for the Cass junior varsity team. She experienced something different in one of the meets.

It wasn't a forfeit in the traditional sense. She's dealt with those enough and learned to accept them.

"I've only had a couple of issues where boys end up forfeiting to me, because I'm a girl," Rees said. "My team is really supportive of me, and most of the boys I wrestle are very supportive. There's only a couple of times where they actually forfeit against me."

But in one of her matches, the opponent shook hands to start the match, circled the mat with her for a few seconds and then laid down on his back with his arms outstretched.

"That's the only time I've ever really seen her get mad," her mother said, calling the experience "humiliating."

Rees yelled at the boy to stand up and wrestle her.

A little boy, about 6 years old, walked up to her and said, he wasn't afraid to wrestle a girl. She took it in stride, letting the little kid beat her in a friendly spar.

"That was different for me," Rees said of the ordeal. "That had never happened. I have had kids forfeit, no big deal. For them to go out and lay on the mat, that's just another level. You don't do that."

There's a good chance Rees will face a forfeit or two during the upcoming season, but if those come at the varsity level, it means she's at least checked off one of her main short-term goals.

"My goal is definitely to make varsity 106," Rees said. "I want to be able to go to state with my brother. I want to be able to place at the first-ever girls high school state [meet]."

Rees is fully expected to compete for the starting spot in that 106-pound weight class for Cass — one of the state's top wrestling programs. Her older brother, Hunter, actually held the spot for the Colonels this past season.

But the junior will be moving up a couple of weight classes this year. It's not the first time he's made way for his sister to join his duals team.

When he was in eighth grade and she was in sixth, they were both on their middle school team in Colorado. Even though they were the same weight at the time, he wrestled up so that she didn't have to wrestle at a disadvantage.

"Her and Hunter have done well together," their mother said. "He's really supportive of her being in high school. He can't wait."

Cass wrestling coach D.L. Koontz can't wait either. He's been impressed with the younger Rees since first seeing her compete following the family's cross-country move prior to the 2016-17 school year.

"She has a great feel for not only her position but also her opponent's position," Koontz said. "Some of the first matches that I ever watched her wrestle, I was just kind of amazed at things she would feel that most people, especially most people at middle-school age, don't feel and know what to do. She's definitely far advanced for her age, which is apparent by what she's been doing all summer, going to national tournaments. She loves the sport and puts the work in. That's for sure."

He's looking forward to having Rees compete for a starting spot during duals season. Although, she'll be competing every day in practice with another incredibly capable wrestler.

Even if she doesn't win the competition outright, Koontz expects her to still feature in some varsity matches and expects her to have plenty of success at the newly established GHSA girls wrestling state championship meet.

"She's got a really great chance," Koontz said of Rees' opportunity to start. "I've got another — it was actually her drill partner last year — and he's going to be around 106, too. They're two little different styles, so that allows me for dual situations to float with two good kids. OK, he matches up better here or she matches up better with this one. That's going to be great.

"They're doing the all-girls state tournament this year, too. ... She'll be a state-placer. I honest to God think in four years she would have been a state-placer with the boys, too. She's literally that good."

The fact that Rees began wrestling not out of interest, but instead as a by-product of a husband trying to help his wife deal with an out-of-control child makes her journey even more remarkable.

While it took her a while to decide she wanted to compete at the highest level, Rees knew from that first day that wrestling would be her thing.

"It was definitely that I wanted to keep doing it," Rees said of her initial reaction to participating in the sport. "I definitely just have a drive to keep doing this. Now, I'm here, so I'm really glad that I ended up doing it."