Diana Johnson is a cheerleader at Millville High School and a member of the school’s dance team.
She also is a contender to win a state championship in wrestling.
Those activities might not seem compatible, but Johnson makes them work in a special way. She likes to cheer. She loves to dance. And she’s all business on the mat.
“People are always asking me about that,” Johnson said. “They are all like ‘How do you go from all girls to all guys?’
“It’s easy. You just adapt.”
New Jersey will sponsor state championships in girls’ wrestling for the first time this weekend in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
A senior who won the 161-pound title at the South Region tournament Feb. 17, Johnson has earned an automatic berth into Friday night’s semifinals in her weight class.
With a victory, Johnson would compete to become one of New Jersey’s first girls state wrestling champions on Saturday afternoon.
“Amazing,” Johnson said of the opportunity to compete under the vaulted ceiling and before a crowd that usually numbers around 10,000. “It’s going to be so exciting.”
Johnson went out for wrestling as a freshman after her mother tired of watching her battle at home with her brother, former Millville football standout Rashad Johnson.
“I like to fight,” Johnson said. “It was this or boxing and my mom didn’t want me to do boxing because she didn’t want me to get injured.
“I wouldn’t go in school and fight. I would fight my brother at home, like play fight, and it would turn into actually wanting to fight. But instead of boxing, my mom was like, ‘Try something else.’
“So I did tae kwon do and then I moved over into wrestling.”
Johnson has been the only girl on the Millville wrestling team during her four seasons.
“She’s just like anyone else for us,” Millville coach Jason Bilinski said. “She drills with the guys every day.”
Johnson said competing against boys in such a physical sport was a little awkward at first.
“At first it was difficult,” Johnson said. “My freshman year I was concerned that the boys wouldn’t accept me, but as time went on, I learned that it was more like a brother-sister relationship.”
Unlike many girls, Johnson competed against only boys in the regular season. She was the 152-pounder in the Thunderbolts’ lineup.
“She would get upset if we didn’t let her wrestle,” Bilinski said. “Sometimes I would be like, ‘That kid [opponent] is a state qualifier, we’re going to forfeit’ and she would get mad.”
Johnson won once by forfeit in 11 bouts against boys this season. But she went the distance on a few occasions, saving the team bonus points.
“I almost pinned one,” Johnson said.
Johnson finally got to compete against girls at the South Region tournament at Red Bank on Feb. 17. She went 4-0, pinning top-seeded Madison Pesavage of Jackson Memorial in the title bout.
“Wrestling a guy, it was always like, 'He’s going to be stronger than you so you might not win,’” Johnson said. “But with a girl, I know both of us are at the same level.”
Johnson doesn’t think it’s unusual that she’s a wrestler who also serves as a cheerleader in fall sports and a dancer. She’s a member of the Thunderbolts’ track and field team as well.
“I like them all,” Johnson said.
On Wednesday, Johnson attended dance-team practice after school, then moved to the wrestling room to work out with Bilinski.
“Aw, c’mon, you got makeup on?” Bilinski said when Johnson arrived for practice. “Glitter?”
Bilinski said Johnson’s versatility extends to her strong work in the classroom and her leadership in the school.
“She’s just a great all-around kid,” Bilinski said. “She’s the kind of student-athlete you want to have in your program.”
At Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City.
Quarterfinals, 6 p.m.
Semifinals to follow
Wrestlebacks, 10 a.m.