At high schools in Ahwatukee, female wrestling finally has arrived, no holds barred.
Since the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the governing body of high school sports in the state, announced last May that it would sanction girls wrestling as an “emerging sport” this school year, a collective sigh of relief was uttered by every female wrestler who previously had to practice moves against a member of the boys wrestling team.
The first girls wrestling season is under way with sectional and state tournaments to follow. The script is similar to the AIA’s roll out of beach volleyball last year.
The girls respect that they are part of the inaugural year, setting the first records for girls down the line to break as the sport grows.
“We instantly become friends with every girl we meet on the other teams,” said Desert Vista wrestler Akira Cook. “Being girls and the only girl wrestlers, we have to stick together. It’s an honor that all of us are here.”
The rules of the sport have not changed. Neither has the coaching. What’s different is the sense of accomplishment the girls get from competing in a sport tailored just to them.
“I’ve definitely bragged about wrestling to a bunch of my friends,” said Desert Vista junior Hannah Armenta. “Now I’m trying to even more of them to do it, too.”
Mariah Gramza, one of just two on the Perry High girls wrestling team, took first place in her weight class in Perry’s first tournament of the season.
Gramza said that she sensed silent judgment that she lacked skill and was out of place on the mat when she used to wrestle against boys. Holding up a winner’s medal – the first Perry girl to do so in wrestling – it was clear that the tide had turned.
“It kind of felt nice winning and proving them wrong,” she said.
Having their own teams, being able to wrestle against other females and now having the opportunity to be crowned state champion makes Horizon High wrestler Andrea Horanzy feel like she and other girls finally have their own identity in the sport.
“Before, I kind of felt isolated being the only girl, like I wasn’t important, especially because I was losing a lot against the boys my size,” said Horanzy, the only girl on her wrestling team. “Now, I feel more included.”
For years, girls struggled to fit in to the high school wrestling community. They were permitted to wrestle on boys high school teams because they had none of their own.
That kept some potential female wrestlers away from the mat.
With rosters small while the new sport builds, girls often still must wrestle against boys during practice sessions. That’s uncomfortable for both, for reasons beyond a difference in muscle mass and natural strength.
Casteel High coach Frank Torres said several potential wrestlers and their parents were uncomfortable with their daughters in such close contact to similar-age boys.
“A couple of years ago, I had five junior-high cheerleaders walk in and say they wanted to wrestle,” Torres said. “I let them do it for a couple of practices and they didn’t come back because they were wrestling the boys.
“I asked them what drove them away and to boil it down it was just strange for them being that close and having that kind of contact with boys.”
The sport, by its nature, requires close contact with the opponent to train and compete.
Stefany Valencia, a first-year wrestler for Westwood High, who took third place in her weight class at the Anthony Robles Eastside Women’s Tournament on Jan. 12, found her first athletic calling in the sport.
Valencia likes the sense of camaraderie and pride among female wrestlers, knowing they are breaking ground.
“You have to get close with the girls to practice,” Valencia said. “Then we start talking to each other outside about wrestling, and we start knowing each other.”
Torres calls wrestling one of the most inclusive sports girls can be a part of in high school now. All body shapes and sizes are welcome, even encouraged. With weight classes from 101 to 225 pounds, and competitors of more or less equal size, girls who might be too big or too small for other sports actually provide their teams with a scoring advantage in wrestling.
Further, he said, the boys on the high school wrestling scene often are the girls’ biggest cheerleaders.
“Nobody gets more excited and there’s no louder cheers than when one of your girls makes a good move or wins,” Torres said.