As a young athlete, Haven Pennington said she often looked at her role models when setting goals.

Their actions, she said, helped her as she grew into her sports.

Now Pennington, a senior at Grove, is becoming a role model for younger athletes. 

With a stroke of a pen on Friday, Nov. 9, Pennington - surrounded by family and friends - became the first woman to receive a full-ride scholarship to wrestle for a Division I school.

Pennington signed her letter of intent to join the growing wrestling program at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.

The program is under the direction of Mark Cody, who once served as the head wrestling coach at the University of Oklahoma.

Since Presbyterian College's program began in March, Cody has recruited 19 wrestlers, including five women. While no cap has been placed on the program, Cody hopes to eventually have a roster of 40 men and 40 women on his team.

Cody first began to look at Pennington, he said, after being contacted by former Grove Sun Sports Editor Darin Hinman, for information about collegiate women's wrestling. 

Cody said after further research, he determined Pennington was the type of athlete he wanted to join his team.

"I was looking for someone kind and considerate," Cody said. "People who could walk out on the mat and destroy someone, but walk off the mat being kind."

He said Pennington's academics, as well as her ability to comply with his strict "no drugs/alcohol" requirements, made her a perfect fit for the program.

During a trip earlier this fall, Cody said he got a taste of Pennington's work ethic as she took part in a workout with one of his assistant coaches.

"She attacked what she did right away, without thinking about it," Cody said, which he indicated was telling of her attitude. "She got right out there, we explained it and she jumped in. She out did us in just about everything she did."

Cody said a lot of eyes are on the program he is building, especially as women's wrestling gains traction at the high school and collegiate level.

He knows Pennington aspires to join the MMA after college. But, he said, based on what he has seen of Pennington's efforts, the Olympics are definitely within reach - if she sets her mind to it.

"She just has the demeanor we were looking for," Cody said. "She's a force to be reckoned with."

More about Pennington

Pennington, who began wrestling in the first grade, said she's excited to continue in the sport beyond high school.

She said she's a bit shocked, to receive the first full-ride scholarship in the history of the emerging sport. 

Knowing that younger athletes - especially young girls who strive to wrestle - is both a challenge and a blessing.

"They watch everything you do," Pennington said. "If you do something wrong, they will do it.

"I hope this gives little girls a chance to wrestle and a chance to have this experience."

Pennington said her role models in life have included her parents, Donny and Angie Pennington.

She said her dad's work ethic, where he strived to be hardworking at all times, as well as her mom's love of fitness, helped shape her to be who she is today.

Pennington's love of wrestling grew as she learned about her uncle Randy died his first year of college. He wrestled in high school and was in his first year wrestling on the collegiate level.

Pennington said his example, helped motivate her to learn the sport.

"I wanted to be the best I could be," Pennington said. 

The individual nature of the sport, as well as the mental toughness it demanded, drew Pennington to wrestling.

"What you put into it, is what you get out of it," Pennington said. "With wrestling you strive to be the best person you can be, because it's a solo sport."

In addition to training with her father, Pennington has also worked with Coach John Henry Ward in Grove, and Jeremy Phillips in Neosho. 

She said her father taught her to be a good athlete both mentally and physically, while Ward taught her lessons about life, on and off the mat.

Ward joked at Friday's signing that Pennington always strives to do her best, no matter what "with a smile on her face."

"She's always had bigger goals in mind," Ward said. "She's always working towards something."

Richard Bassett, Grove's Athletic Director, agreed. He said Pennington's success is directly related to the time, effort and sacrifice she has put into achieving her goals.

Looking ahead

She hopes to pursue a pre-med or pre-dental degree while at Presbyterian College, with the hopes of becoming a physician's assistant or a physical therapist. 

"It's nice to know I can get a degree out of it," Pennington said. "That it's not just about sports. But that I can get a degree and start my career.

"I just want to be my best, while enjoying life."

Her college goals also include becoming the national champion for women's wrestling and achieving the All-American status. She may also consider the 2020 Olympics, depending on several factors. 

"I definitely want to strive to be the best," Pennington said. 

She hopes to eventually compete in the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) world, after falling in love with the sport because it combines both boxing and wrestling.

Pennington, who previously trained with the Grove Boxing Club, is planning to start training with Kenzie Morrison in Jay.

Ultimately, though, Pennington hopes the young girls who now look up to her remember one important lesson.

"I hope they keep working as hard as they can, even if they feel like giving up - especially if they are wrestling boys," Pennington said. "I hope they keep their heads up, and keep going, knowing that it will help them out in the future.

"I hope they learn not to just be a good wrestler, but also a good person."