If any of the guys on Jenna Pavlik’s wrestling team at Woodbridge High have any qualms about having a female head coach, she offers up a simple solution – just take it to the mat.
That’s the way Pavlik, the third of eight siblings in her family, has approached solving problems since she was in the first grade.
Dispute with an older brother? Settle it with a wrestling match.
“We didn’t fist fight when we were kids. We always settled it through a wrestling match,” Pavlik said. “And there were eight kids in the family, so there was always a wrestling match going on.”
Perhaps it’s that mentality that has helped Pavlik gain acceptance so rapidly as what may be the first female high school wrestling coach in Delaware. She took over the reins of the Woodbridge program entering this season.
But the biggest thing people tend to see about Pavlik is her impeccable résumé. She was a 2012 Olympic hopeful who fell in love with the sport while growing up in Lewes.
“In 2009 I won nationals and was second at the World Team Trials and Pan-Am Games, but I blew my shoulder out so I had surgery for that and that set me out a year,” said Pavlik, a 28-year-old resident of Georgetown. “I came back and I blew it out again, so I was out another year. I still had that goal and I tried to come back but it wasn’t in the cards, it wasn’t in the plans. I guess God had bigger things for me.
“Becoming a wrestling coach was the plan all along. I just put it into motion a little earlier than I would have liked.”
Women coaching boys high school wrestling is rare, but not unheard of. Kristen Iannuzzi took over the boys program at West Orange (Fla.) High in 2009. That season, the team finished last in its district. The next season, Ianuzzi led the team to a district title. Like Pavlik, Iannuzzi wrestled in high school.
In 2001, Pavlik graduated from Cape Henlopen, where she became one of the first female wrestlers downstate to compete in and win a varsity match. She became captain of the Vikings’ squad during her senior year.
“She came very well qualified. It’s amazing,” said Scott Bleile, the director of athletics at Woodbridge. “When we sat down for the interview you look at people’s credentials and their experience and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ She’s doing wonderful with the kids.
“Of course you’re a little hesitant when you hire a woman as a wrestling coach and how the kids are going to react, but they’ve responded very well. The kids knew of her anyway. They knew when she came in she meant business, which is a good thing.”
Woodbridge won its first dual meet of the season 48-33 over Milford on Dec. 5. The Blue Raiders also gave defending Division II state champion Polytech a run for its money before losing 45-24 on Dec. 19. The Blue Raiders got back on track by beating Delmar 40-34 on Wednesday.
Pavlik said she’s been well received.
“I think the school as a whole, the school board and the administration, has been great,” Pavlik said. “A couple of them [wrestlers] just want to see what I’m all about, but I think after a while, they’ve learned to listen to what I have to say so that’s good. They’ve all been working hard and are really receptive to what I have to teach them.”
Willie Davis, a junior for the Blue Raiders, admitted he was taken aback when he learned that his new coach was a woman.
“I kind of was surprised,” Davis said. “I didn’t really believe it at first and then I looked up and watched some of her [wrestling] matches online and saw that she was pretty good. She’s taught us a lot.
“It’s almost the same as having a male coach because she’s still intense like the male coaches are. She does wrestle us a lot, whether it’s live wrestling or just drilling and showing us a move.”
Pavlik trained at the United States Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Mich., after graduating from Lock Haven University with a bachelors’ degree in elementary education and middle school math. She then went on to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Spring, Colo.
Pavlik reached her peak as a competitor in 2009, when she won a title at the Senior Nationals and was runner-up and both the Pan-American Championships and the World Team Trials.
Then came the injuries and the shift from competing to coaching.
“It’s a lot different,” said Pavlik. “Emotionally, I think it’s more draining because emotionally I’m in every match. When I was wrestling, I just had to worry about me and now I have 14 or 18 guys to worry about and how they’re doing. It’s been a little stressful physically.
“I have that responsibility of making sure the guys get what they need every day and then developing a year-long plan, also. I think that’s been the biggest change.”
Pavlik credits her father, Dave, and current Smyrna head coach Kurt Howell for honing her wrestling skills.
“Most of them worked with me back when most people didn’t think women should be wrestling,” she said. “It is a lot more accepted now, thanks to guys like these who were willing to see me as a wrestler, who wanted the same thing as everyone else on the team – to win.”
Howell’s brother, Dickie, coaches wrestling at Caesar Rodney.
“I really like Jenna. I’ve known her since she wrestled back in the day,” Dickie Howell said. “It’s different. I don’t think Delaware’s ever had a woman wrestling coach, so that’s pretty neat.”
Pavlik isn’t focused on the novelty.
“I don’t see myself as a female coach, I just see myself as a coach,” Pavlik said. “I’m just out here to do a job and do it to the best of my ability.”