Upon entering Cherry Hill East little more than two years ago, Maya Hemo made the decision to hang up her soccer cleats and pursue wrestling with the Cougars.
She became interested in the sport after watching her brother in years past and decided to give it a try, quickly seeing success as a first-year wrestler after winning 10 matches during her freshman year.
From that point on – following encouragement from one of her coaches early in her sophomore year – Hemo took a much more dedicated approach to the sport with regard to her overall training, strength training and diet, in order to be the best she could be during the rest of her high-school career.
That effort earned Hemo a 21-1 record this year, her junior season, while also etching her name in the record books as the first girl in program history to secure a region and state title.
For that, Hemo is South Jersey Sports Weekly’s 2021-’22 girls Wrestler of the Year.
The pathway to such success was obviously not an easy one: It required the junior to entirely change her schedule in the name of progress.
“I definitely didn’t expect any of [this success] that I’ve experienced,” Hemo said. “I just joined at first because I wanted to stay active and wanted something to do. I didn’t think at first that I’d take it as far or as seriously as I have … It was a tough routine at first, but it eventually became something that I looked forward to.
“For me, wrestling became more than just a sport this season,” she added. “It really helped me get my life together, so it made it even that more special to me.”
Steve Ascola, one of Hemo’s coaches at East, saw an immense amount of promise from the wrestler during her freshman year. That led to a conversation with Hemo during the early part of her sophomore year that was meant to help her set goals higher than she initially thought possible.
“She showed a lot of potential right out of the gate, and I thought if she continued to learn more about how to wrestle after that first year and get a little stronger, that she could be something special,” Ascola said.
Hemo’s ultimate goal initially – in discussions with her coach – was to make the state championship meet by the end of her senior year. Instead, she’s already become a state champion in her junior season.
While the results are something her coach thought were possible eventually, it is still awe-inspiring for Ascola to see how quickly the results have come.
“I knew she had this in her, but I’m shocked at how quickly it’s happened, because it’s just been a year turnaround of implementing different things that we thought could make her great,” Ascola said.
The coach focused on working the wrestling side of things with Hemo, as it pertained to practice and technique, while he enlisted the help of a friend from college, Aaron Eighmey, to help her with more specific lifting and the fitness aspects of getting stronger physically.
The results, of course, have been dramatic.
As Hemo and Ascola both recognize, the toughest thing about becoming a state champion is going back out there and doing it again, something the junior now has the opportunity to do in her final year with the Cougars next season.
And while becoming a back-to-back state champion definitely has a nice ring to it, Hemo says she’s proud of what she’s been able to accomplish at East and will be happy next season as long as she improves as a wrestler – whether a state championship comes with it or not.
“I want to just keep getting better,” Hemo said. “Even if I don’t place next year or not, I’ll be happy if I just improve. For me, it’s all about the journey instead of the end result.
“The end results are nice, but it’s in the journey where you make the most growth.”