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New Jersey’s first girls' wrestling season begins this week, and interest at one school has exploded

Kingsway Regional High School has around 40 students out for the sport, which is being offered to girls for the first time in New Jersey. Officials say they "never expected" such interest.

The Kingsway girls' wrestling team warms up before practice. "“These girls are athletes,” boys coach Mike Barikian said. "We have standout field hockey players, softball players, lacrosse players. But they are getting the wrestling ‘bug.’ "
The Kingsway girls' wrestling team warms up before practice. "“These girls are athletes,” boys coach Mike Barikian said. "We have standout field hockey players, softball players, lacrosse players. But they are getting the wrestling ‘bug.’ "Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Abby Vance took an odd path to an unusual place: She went from the football field to the wrestling mat.

A senior at Kingsway Regional High School, Vance played in the Powder Puff football game, an annual non-tackle battle between girls in the junior and senior classes, and starred as a linebacker racing from sideline to sideline for the 12th-grade squad.

“The coach saw how athletic and aggressive I was, and he was like, ‘You totally should come out for wrestling,’ ” Vance said.

The 17-year-old signed up for the sport on a whim, took the mat for the first time earlier this month, and now is part of a remarkable wave of interest in girls’ wrestling at the school in Woolwich Township, Gloucester County.

Vance is one of around 40 girls at Kingsway who have gone out for the sport, which will be sponsored by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association for the first time this season.

New Jersey is the first Mid-Atlantic state to offer girls’ wrestling and one of just 14 states in the nation to sponsor the sport. The other states are Texas, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Arizona, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, and Maine.

Supporters of all-girls' wrestling teams in Pennsylvania said they hope their state follows New Jersey with high school-sanctioned girls' teams next year. Joe Stabilito, the boys' wrestling coach at Upper Dublin High School and an officer at USA Wrestling, the national governing body for freestyle wrestling, said he has spent the last six years laying the groundwork for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to include girls on its roster of sports. He said he has several girls on his boys' team this season.

“It’s a process that has lots of aspects to it,” Stabilito said of PIAA inclusion. “But there is no doubt that there has been an increase in interest. Girls' wrestling is the fastest-growing sport.”

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said that about 180 girls are members of boys' wrestling teams, and that number has stayed about the same for the last three years.

“We’re still in the infancy of this situation,” Lombardi said. “If interest grows, we’d certainly evaluate it and take a closer look at it.”

The wrestling season in New Jersey begins Friday. The state’s governing organization for high school sports will hold a girls-only regional tournament Feb. 17 at Red Bank Regional High School, with the top six qualifiers in each weight class advancing to the state championships March 1-2 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

NJSIAA assistant director Bill Bruno, who oversees wrestling, said there has been a surprising surge in interest around the state in female participation in the sport. But Bruno said Kingsway is the state’s hotbed for girls’ wrestling.

“It’s not even close,” Bruno said.

Explosion of interest

Kingsway athletic director June Cioffi said school officials were “totally surprised” by the interest among girls in the school, which has 1,304 students in grades 10-12.

“It’s just been an explosion,” Cioffi said. “We had an interest meeting in early November and we had 52 girls. We were like, ‘Wow, we never expected this.’ ”

Vance was recruited off the football field by Kingsway assistant boys' wrestling coach Farid Syed, who is overseeing the girls’ program.

“I used to watch linebackers at Rowan and I’m like, ‘She takes better angles than they did,’ ” Syed said of Vance. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get this girl out for wrestling.’ ”

Junior Morgan Atkinson became enamored with the sport while watching her older brother Stanley, a 2016 Clearview graduate who also wrestled at Kingsway and won a regional title for the Dragons.

“When it first came out [that the sport would be offered], I texted my mom, my brother, and my dad, and I was like, ‘Wrestling for the girls,’ ” Atkinson said. “It’s probably the best thing ever.’”

Freshman Alexa Firestone is another girl from a wrestling family. Her brother Zach, now a sophomore wrestler at Rutgers University, won a state title in 2016 for Clearview.

“I love it,” Firestone said. “I love how I can be myself, be aggressive, let my anger out but not hurt the girl.”

Kingsway freshman Ada Lloyd wanted to try wrestling after competing in karate for much of her youth.

“I wanted to show everybody I’m a beast,” said Lloyd, a black belt in karate. “I just love the girls. I love being out here. I love how hard everybody works. I’m so proud of them, and I’m proud of Kingsway for having this for us.”

There are pockets of interest in South Jersey in girls’ wrestling. Pennsauken has around 10 girls out for the sport. Cherry Hill West has the same. Pemberton has six.

“It’s great these girls are getting the opportunity,” Pennsauken athletic director Eric Mossop said. “I think when word gets around, when people start seeing what it’s like, when girls start seeing the value in this, that this thing could blow up.”

Wrestling’s benefits

Most schools in South Jersey have a handful of girl wrestlers in this first season, if that. Many have zero.

“As a female athletic director, I just love that it’s another avenue, another sport for our girls," Cioffi said.

Boys' wrestling is a popular sport in New Jersey. During the 2017-18 school year, 8,999 boys in the state participated in the sport at the high school level, compared to 23,034 who played football, 20,486 who were members of a track and field team, 15,365 who played basketball, and 15,103 who played baseball.

Wrestling’s advocates tout its demanding nature and believe the sport develops discipline, self-sufficiency, personal accountability, and appreciation of nutrition, as well as a sharpened edge for self-defense.

Champions of New Jersey’s newest varsity sport say girls can now benefit from those qualities, just like boys always have.

“I love all the dedication and hard work put into it,” Atkinson said. “It motivates me to do better not only with wrestling but with everything in life.”

Kingsway boys' wrestling coach Mike Barikian, whose team should be among the best in the state this season, said the sport can work wonders for athletes of either gender.

“It’s exactly the same for the girls,” Barikian said. “The discipline, the focus, the commitment, the way we believe those things carry over into every aspect of your life, those things are so valuable for everybody — for boys and for girls.”

Barikian said several of the female wrestlers are standouts in other sports.

“These girls are athletes,” Barikian said. "We have standout field hockey players, softball players, lacrosse players. But they are getting the wrestling bug.

“We’ve already gotten emails from parents who can’t believe the benefits. One mom wrote me and said that on her own, their daughter got up and ran three miles on a Sunday morning.”

Katherine Harman, a professor in communication studies at Rowan University and founding member of the school’s Center for Sports Communication and Social Impact, calls the addition of girls' wrestling as a varsity sport “an exciting advancement” in efforts to provide athletic options for females.

“Historically, wrestling has such a strong tradition in this area, with strong familial ties, so it is cool to think that girls can continue that tradition that maybe their grandfathers, fathers, uncles or brothers also participated in,” Harman said.

On the mat

Syed, a health and physical education teacher at Kingsway who played football at Steinert High School and Rowan, put the girls through a demanding practice last week that stretched for 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Syed and fellow assistant coach Ben Lloyd spent much of their time demonstrating holds and techniques, while also stressing the importance of conditioning.

“We don’t baby them,” Syed said. “The thing about [coaching] girls is, they will do things exactly like you tell them to do them.”

During the practice at Kingsway Middle School, the girls worked on breakdown moves from the top position, including the chop of an opponent’s elbow and the tight-waist-and-ankle.

In addition, the girls worked on a half nelson, a move designed to turn an opponent into a pinning position.

“I just love the atmosphere,” Vance said. “Most sports, there’s a couple players who are really good and they think they are all that. Here, we’re all learning together. And we’re building each other up, which makes us so closely bonded.”

Syed ran a fast-paced practice. Twice during the workout, he made the girls do 10 push-ups because they weren’t moving quickly enough into position for a new drill.

“It’s been a lot of fun, but the conditioning is hard,” Firestone said.

According to Bruno, the NJSIAA director, girls in New Jersey still have the option to wrestle against boys, as they always have. Syed said all of Kingsway’s girls have opted to compete only against other girls.

Bruno said any girls who compete against boys during the regular season must make a decision on whether to enter the boys' individual tournament, which begins Feb. 15-16 with action in 32 districts, or to compete in the girls' regional tournament.

The female wrestlers at Kingsway said the reaction in school has been mixed, with some support and some skepticism.

“I’ve gotten some like, ‘Wow, you’re doing girls’ wrestling? You’re weird for that,’ ” Firestone said. “But I really don’t care what they think because it’s me. It’s who I want to be.”

Said Atkinson: “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you do wrestling?’ But they don’t know what’s coming for them.”

Cioffi said Kingsway will stage a couple of girls’ tournaments this season and that the school plans to enter the girls in a few other tournaments around the state. In addition, when the boys’ team wrestles an opponent with girls involved in the sport, there’s a plan to set up a few female-only bouts in conjunction with the main event.

The surge in interest in the sport has forced Cioffi to scramble to support the new program. She has purchased two additional wrestling mats, ordered new uniforms — which will be in two styles, with two-piece outfits as well as one-piece singlets similar to the ones worn by boys but with a slightly different cut — and budgeted for an additional assistant coach.

“It’s been a whirlwind," Cioffi said. "We told the girls we really don’t know how many matches we’re going to be able to get them. But this is just the first year. We’d like to see this grow and grow.”

Vance was curious about wrestling when Syed invited her to join the team. But she had her doubts. She missed a few of the earlier practices as she pondered her decision.

“I didn’t know how seriously people were going to take this,” Vance said.

Vance said she has played soccer and run cross-country at Kingsway and participated in sports for most of her life. But she has never experienced anything like wrestling.

“There’s actually a bunch of teachers who have come up to me and asked, ‘How do you like wrestling?’ ” Vance said. “I didn’t even know they knew I was wrestling. I was like, ‘I love it. It’s amazing.’ "