The high school wrestling landscape was altered with the addition of girls teams to the sport this season.
“Just like anything else, they want an opportunity to compete,” said Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Director David Hines. “If they can compete with their own gender, why wouldn’t we allow that?”
The first Arizona state championships for girls wrestling was held Friday.
Allowing girls to compete against each other instead of against boys, it takes away the intimidation factor that was there in the past.
Breaking Gender Barriers
For many of the girls who wrestle, it was a sport that had been in their family for years. Growing up they had heard the tales of their fathers’ success on the mat or witnessed their brothers’ development in the sport.
“My dad was in wrestling since he was really little and he passed it on to my brothers,” Chandler sophomore Carla Rivas said. “Since they were younger, I’ve been trying to practice with them, but my dad always told me I couldn’t do the sport.”
It was a similar situation for Basha High School sophomore Amber Rodriquez, who has two older brothers already involved in Basha’s wrestling program.
“The coach actually came to me and said, ‘Hey, you should try out because your brothers are really good.’ So I came out and I fell in love with it,” Rodriquez said.
Some were determined to wrestle without a girls program, the path was just more difficult. Trinity Howard, a freshman at Basha, started wrestling in middle school and was the only girl on the mat.
“Being the only girl, it was definitely intimidating at times, but wrestling is in my family and what I’ve always wanted to do,” Howard said.
Meanwhile, some were introduced to wrestling through various forms of martial arts in their younger years.
“I started with judo when I was younger,” Chandler junior Stefana Jelacic said. “A lot of people who wrestled also did judo, and I was like ‘Oh, I want to try it’. That was in sixth or seventh grade, and when I stepped on the mat, I just fell in love.”
It’s a similar story for Rylee Bruce of Moon Valley. Bruce began wrestling because she wants to become a mixed martial artist, and her coaches told her she should give wrestling a shot.
“Wrestling is a fantastic base for that,” Bruce said. “Once I actually started my first few weeks of season, I got addicted.”
While it’s not always important how the girls first stepped foot on the mat, it’s pivotal to recognize what they’re taking away from it.
Learning on the mat
Wrestling, like any sport, has life lessons it teaches along the way.
“Wrestling is the ultimate place to gain confidence in yourself and your abilities,” Basha senior Taylor Haney said. “You’re going to learn how to put yourself in an uncomfortable position, but be a strong person on the mat because if you’re shy and weak on the mat, you’re not going to be able to be efficient.”
Rodriquez echoed her teammate, and said she’s not only become stronger physically, but also mentally.
“In wrestling, if you lose control you start doing all of these crazy things that you normally wouldn’t do in a match and you’ll lose, so you have to really take control of yourself and have control of your emotions and you have to persevere through it,” Rodriquez said.
Bruce said wrestling has taught her how to cope with difficult situations in life.
Growing the sport
Wrestling is the fastest growing girls sport. Data from USA Wrestling shows a steady increase in participation for almost three decades. In 1990, there were only 112 girls who participated in wrestling at the high school level. By the 2016-2017 school year, USA Wrestling has reported there was more than 14,500.
Arizona isn’t the first state to recently welcome girls to the sport. Just a year ago, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Texas, Tennessee and Washington offered or were in the process of adding girls wrestling as a high school sport. Since then, the number of states has more than doubled as Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey and Oregon decided to add the sport.
Hines said numbers had previously been down for boys wrestling, but he thinks the addition of girls wrestling as an emerging sport will help bring wrestling back by sparking a new interest.
Moon Valley is taking a unique approach to girls wrestling by placing a strong female in a coaching position to work under and learn from legendary wrestling coach Brian Smith. The idea of having a female coach in the wrestling room is to provide the girls with a role-model.
Peggy Sue Armstrong had already been helping with the wrestling program for the last seven years, but has transitioned to a more influential position within the program. She said it’s been a unique experience to be a part of wrestling during a time when female engagement is booming.
“It’s very rewarding, primarily just to see an opportunity for female athletes to participate in a sport that has always had a stigma of being a boys-only or male-only sport. Seeing this opportunity is fantastic,” Armstrong said.
Girls wrestling is currently an emerging sport, meaning schools don’t have a designated girls team to schedule meets against. Right now, the girls only have the opportunity to compete against other girls at tournaments. Coach Smith said he wouldn’t be surprised if girls wrestling was made an official sport by the 2020-2021 school year.
“I would say probably within a year to two years we will have enough schools that a Moon Valley could wrestle a Wickenburg, girls on girls, full team,” Smith said.
Hines said they will be able to recognize girls wrestling as an official sport when at least half of the schools in each of the six conferences have a girls wrestling program.
“We’re excited,” Hines said. “We have more girls than we anticipated competing and our hope is that sooner than later we can actually say we have enough kids that we can make this as their own sport.”
List of winners Friday
101: 1st Place: Lexi Borunda, Surprise Shadow Ridge; 2nd Place: Grace Wletschak, Desert Ridge
110: 1st Place: Sierrah Thrun, Tempe Corona Del Sol; 2nd Place: Genesis Angel Cejudo, Mesa Desert Mountain
118: 1st Place: Stefana Jelacic, Chandler; 2nd Place: Cynthenie Tai, Phoenix Washington
125: 1st Place; Julia Chambers, Mesa Skyline; 2nd Place: Trinity Howard, Chandler Basha
RELATED: Wrestling championship recap
130: 1st Place: Carolina Moreno, Yuma Kofa; 2nd Place: Yaniva Carrillo, Laveen Cesar Chavez
135: 1st place: Julia Lundberg, Phoenix North Canyon; 2nd Place: Jazmine Lobato, Bullhead City Mohave
145: 1st Place: Jessie McCurry, Glendale Deer Valley; 2nd Place: Courtney Cardoza, Goodyear Millennium
160: 1st Place, Jennifer Curry, Chandler Hamilton; 2nd Place: Layla Velasquez, Yuma San Pasqual
185: 1st Place: Mia Didur, Peoria Centennial; 2nd Place: Sofia Rubio, Tempe Marcos De Niza
225: 1st place: Danni Schulz, Cottonwood Mingus; Mariana Reyes, Yuma Cibola