Day 1 of Mat Classic shows evolution of girls wrestling

TACOMA — It had nothing to do with male or female.

It was about winning.

When Arlington’s boys wrestling team was readying to face Everett in a pivotal Wesco 3A North dual, the Eagles — coaches and wrestlers — wanted to put out the best 14 wrestlers they possibly could.

That meant co-opting Jordynn Mani, a 115-pounder on the girls’ team, into the 113-pound slot in the boys’ lineup.

Mani lost an entertaining match to the Seagulls’ Josh Allred that could have gone either way, but the Eagles won the dual 41-30.

“The guys wanted to win the match, and she was the best option for that,” Arlington girls coach Jim Smoots said. “We discussed it, and we decided that it would be best for Jordynn to wrestle with the boys a few times for her to see better competition and to try to do what was best for her.”

It was one of several Arlington duals during the regular season that would feature Mani in that 113-pound spot, with the experience all serving to prepare her for this weekend’s Mat Classic XXIX.

Mani easily handled Prosser’s Mollee Weddle in her first-round match on Friday afternoon but lost the ensuing quarterfinal 6-0. She won her consolation match by injury default, guaranteeing her a spot on the podium on Saturday.

Four area girls — Snohomish’s Joessie Gonzales, Kamiak’s Ally de la Cruz, Oak Harbor’s Meredith Bain and Stanwood’s Jailee Mercedes qualified for Saturday’s semifinals.

Four others — Arlington’s Rachel Sherson, Granite Falls’ Mattea Potter, Glacier Peak’s Kiley Hubby and Granite Falls’ Karrah Smith are still alive in the consolation bracket, guaranteeing that they will place in the top eight on Saturday.

In the four years since current seniors like Mani, Sherson, and Mercedes began their prep careers, Washington has enjoyed a sea change with regards to girls wrestling, with more programs popping up around the state each year. Plus, the existing ones are growing in number.

In the 10 years since it was added to the regular Mat Classic program after being presented in an exhibition invitational format from 2004-2006, girls wrestling has evolved from a niche sport with passionate participants in isolated areas to a sport whose increasing participation numbers are demanding its own practice times and spaces, as well as its own coaches.

In a word, autonomy.

“Until we have more programs that are truly girls programs, it will never be truly equal,” said Everett girls coach Rick Iversen, who raised the Seagulls’ turnout from four to 28 in a year, and operates separately from — but with the cooperation of — boys coach Brien Elliott. “Girls soccer isn’t boys soccer, girls tennis isn’t boys tennis. Making girls wrestling teams their own program reinforces the fact that they’re separate, but equal to the boys programs.”

Three Everett wrestlers competed over the weekend, but all three were eliminated after Friday’s action.

All told, 11 local schools sent female wrestlers to Tacoma, and five of those (Arlington, Everett, Oak Harbor, Lakewood, Kamiak) had multiple representatives.

That is proportionally in line with turnout from across the state. A total of 109 schools are represented at Mat Classic and 51 have more than one athlete competing.

In 2014, the freshman year of the Class of 2017, 99 schools — seven local — contributed wrestlers to the tournament field, and 42 programs had multiple representatives.

“There’s a couple things contributing to (the expansion). One is that instead of just pockets of support we have more and more communities where an advocate — whether it’s a coach or a student-athlete — is getting the fire lit,” said John Miller, the WIAA’s executive director who oversees wrestling. “The other is the media attention that females who participate in MMA is receiving. (Franklin Pierce alumna) Miesha Tate was an early girls state champion. It’s an activity that awards a state championship and for girls seeing it on TV, it’s an acceptable sport to participate in.”

Miller added that he can envision a time in the near future when girls across the state will wrestle full league regular-season schedules, and will arrive at the Tacoma Dome to compete in state tournament competition separated by classification, just like the boys.

More than just acceptable, wrestling is opening the traditionally strong feelings of family, team and camaraderie to a new demographic of potential prep athletes.

“I was halfway through cross country season as a freshman and Rachel (Sherson) was very persuasive in getting me to try wrestling, and I love it now,” said Mani, who has extended her training to the club scene, working with Vandit Wrestling Academy in Mount Vernon. “I don’t think girls realize how much fun it is and how much more confident you get from it.”

Mercedes, who started wrestling as a sophomore as a response to her older brother, Christopher, beating up on her.

A competitive powerlifter, discus/shot put thrower and former basketball and volleyball player, she took to it quickly. Mercedes placed seventh in her first season, fifth last year as a junior and will have a chance to compete for a state title on Saturday.

“The amount of women’s programs have really increased since I started,” said Mercedes, who was part of a three-person Spartans girls team as a sophomore. Stanwood had nine girls out this year. “A lot of girls I do track with have asked me how I stay in shape. I tell them to try wrestling and some do, but it’s not for everyone.”

There are some girls out there that are fine with being the only female in the wrestling room, but many aren’t.

If more girls continue to try the sport and stick with it, others will feel more comfortable joining in.

“So many girls think it’s so scary and that you have to wrestle boys all the time,” said Gonzales, who has also competed in submission wrestling and mixed martial arts. “I try to get girls I know to try it and say that it’s so much more than that. It’s fun and family. It’s a real bond.”

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