WEST ALLIS, Wis. – There is a kick-butt element to wrestling that most of the sport’s competitors have and Raquel Rojano, despite appearances, is no different.
The sophomore with the glasses from Milwaukee Reagan is tiny and soft-spoken, but inside her burns the kind of spirit that fuels many in the sport. She loves to battle.
“I always wanted to do a combat sport,” she said.
And so she does. A year ago, she joined the wrestling team at Reagan and after the high school season ended, she didn’t stop. She joined the City Kids program, then tried freestyle and Greco-Roman and this fall she signed up for the Ringers program.
She is just the kind of athlete the sport is looking for. Wrestling may be a male-dominated sport at the high school level, but at club tournaments during the rest of the year, the sight of girls on the mat is commonplace.
At Reagan, it’s a daily thing, too.
The Huskies started the year with 12 female wrestlers, the most of any school in the state. Nine were in action Saturday in the Bauer Brawl at West Allis Hale.
Reagan’s girls have bought into the sport so much that head coach Cesar Pequeno hired a female assistant, Daysi Perez.
This year four tournaments in the state feature girls-only divisions. The Marty Loy in Fond du Lac and the Badger State Invitational in Madison were last month. The Wisconsin Challenge Series will be held at Wausau West on Jan. 20. The rest of the time the girls compete in weight classes with boys.
“I think it’s awesome. Girls are getting the feel for them being empowered to do the sports that aren’t traditionally advertised for them,” Perez said. “Now they can feel that they can come in here and do it, too.”
The ultimate goal is to have a girls division added to the WIAA tournament. It could be a perfect marriage. The sport wants to boost its participation numbers and in Wisconsin girls don’t have many athletic options in the winter. The WIAA offers girls basketball, hockey and gymnastics, but basketball is the only sport of the three that can be found in almost every school.
A Wausau Daily Herald story in December said there were 187 girls involved in high school wrestling. Reagan started the year with 12, but due to injuries is down to nine. The squad won the team title Saturday with its best finishes coming from junior Maryann Jimenez and Rojano, who took first and second in the 106- and 113-pound classes.
The victory, however, has been composing the team itself. Most girl competitors in the state are the only females on their team.
“The boys advocated a lot to their girlfriends,” Perez explained. “We tried to hold a couple of open mats before the wrestling season started and we had a lot of girls come to the open mat, so as soon as we saw those girls come to the open mat, we said we want to see if all your athletic fees are paid because we want to see you on the wrestling team even if you don’t have any wrestling experience.”
Perez is relatively new to the sport as well. A math teacher at the school who had recently started mixed-martial arts, she began stopping by wrestling practice last season and got to know the coach and team members. She continued to be a regular visitor this year and was eventually asked to join the staff.
A female coach is a rarity that is much appreciated at Reagan.
“I really like having Ms. Perez. You have another female in a leadership role,” said Jimenez, who won three of her four matches by pin Saturday. “I feel like wrestling, especially with a bunch of guys, you don’t see really females in the role of coaching other girls and guys.”
There is strength in Reagan’s numbers. There are enough girls that they can wrestle each other in practice, a luxury that has drawn girls who were hesitant to wrestle boys.
There is also the strength of the experience. A good educational experience, much less an athletic one, leaves the person stronger for being a part of it. Rojano, for one, sounds like she’s better for the time she’s spent on the mat.
“I’m surrounded by people who want to win and have the same goals as me and it’s not only helping me become a better person, but my mindset has changed, too,” she said. “I think more positively about my outcomes and stuff. Even when I lose, there is nothing I’d rather be doing.”