“She turns into a different person on the mat”: Hoke County girls’ wrestling team challenges stereotypes, beats odds

The Hoke County girls’ wrestling team members gathered in their high school gym last week to load up for the long ride to Kernersville, where they’d fight for unofficial individual state championships against more than 120 other girls from across North Carolina.

Four years ago, this couldn’t have happened.

Then, there was no state wrestling tournament just for girls.

And there was only one girls’ wrestling team in all of North Carolina.

The Bucks blazed the trail to the mat in 2017 when Hoke County became the first high school in the state to form a girls’ wrestling team.

Since then, the field for the girls’ state championship invitational has doubled, Uwharrie Charter’s Heaven Fitch became the first girl to win an official NCHSAA state title, beating out a bracket of seven boys, and the number of girls wrestling in high schools across the nation has grown from 804 in 1994 to more than 21,000 in 2019, according to USA Wrestling.

More:Hoke County, Pine Forest bring home girls’ wrestling state championships as 6 Bucks claim top-5 finishes

Steering girls toward grappling is a mission for Bucks wrestling coach Vernon Walworth, who is straightforward in his assessment of the value of girls’ involvement in the sport.

“It’s going to be the savior of the sport as a whole,” he says.

The lower weight classes, which start at 106 pounds and bump up to 113, 120, 126 — a total of 14 classes that top out with the 285-pound heavyweights — have become a challenge to fill for many teams.

Lower numbers of boys in the lighter classes were leading to more forfeits, so Walworth sought out girls who fit the same “strong-minded individuals wishing to impose their will on others” pitch that he used to attract boys to the team.

“When I came over in 2006, there were seven wrestlers on the team, total. All boys,” Walworth says. “The next year, we had seven guys and four girls.”

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This year, the Bucks sent an eight-woman team to compete in the girls’ state invitational, and senior Laila Sa has earned a berth to the NCHSAA individual state championships where she’ll fight a field of boys in the 4-A 106 class.

One of the boys who wrestled on Walworth’s first team at Hoke was Brandon Locklear.

Now, he’s an assistant on the Bucks’ wrestling staff.

“I wasn’t surprised that we would have girls in the area with the fortitude to become good wrestlers,” Locklear says. “I’m surprised at how quickly they’ve grasped the sport and turned it into their own thing.”

Locklear wrestled at 106, and as more girls joined the Hoke squad, he drilled with them at practice regularly.

“I was the small kid on the team,” he says. “The girls were really nice to me but they used to beat the snot out of me every day. I used to think it was so crazy how they could smile and make all these jokes about how cute and teddy-bear I was and then kick the stuffing out of me for like three hours every day.

“I learned quickly that you can’t slight them because they’re females.”

Landen Nelson joined Sa, along with Hoke teammates Cedric Griffin, Geronimo Oxendine and Deidrick Rush, in Kernersville for the NCHSAA 4-A individual championships Saturday.

Nelson says that wrestling Hoke teammate Milena Daniels gives him an edge.

“It’s given me another aspect on technique,” he says.

“Usually I would think walking out there, ‘Oh, I’m going to whoop her.’ And then she came out and did something completely different that I’m not used to and that made it difficult to get stuff on her.”

Purnell Swett girls’ wrestling team members face off during a tournament at Hoke County High in May of 2021.
Boys vs. girls in a contact sport raises some eyebrows, but Hoke’s squad is comfortable with their equality on the mat.

“We emphasize that they’re wrestlers, not girls,” Walworth says.

“It’s just a part of the sport, literally,” Sa, the Bucks’ first girls’ state champion wrestler, says. “You’re put in a lot of uncomfortable positions in wrestling. It’s a contact sport

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“I’ve never felt uncomfortable with a boy that I’ve wrestled touching me in a certain place because I know that is not the intention. It’s not about that. It’s about pinning me.”

Athletes must trust that their opponents are focused on the match. And if they’re not, they could easily suffer a loss.

Female wrestlers challenge male wrestlers in unexpected ways.

“There are different issues you have to worry about wrestling a girl,” Locklear says. “They have really good hips, a lot of them have really good timing, they adjust to pressure well.

“When you wrestle a guy, they want to just manhandle you whereas a girl, they want to finesse a lot more in the tie-ups and they present their own issues that they’re really good at.

“It’s completely different styles.”

Nelson nods in agreement.

“It’s great to have girls wrestling. It really has opened up my eyes to a lot of things I never thought about before.”

Hoke rising senior Samantha Kidder overthinks everything.

“I worry about the things that nobody would even think to worry about before a match,” she says.

But she’s learned to calm down and focus on the task at hand, understanding that her anxiety isn’t going away. “I’m just better at controlling it now,” she says.

“Once you get in there and that whistle blows and you’re lunging at each other, you just forget about it.”

Kidder competes in the heavyweight class. She’s mentoring rising junior Piper Hill in the same class.

“I want to talk about being a heavier girl and wrestling,” Kidder says. “I wish heavier girls would join wrestling. I get it, a lot of it is insecurity. I was that girl last year. But wrestling really helps you build that confidence

“I tell girls all the time, look, nobody cares what you look like in your singlet. They care if you get a pin. You can do it. I wish I could just give them the confidence that I feel going out there because those small things that you worry about, nobody’s paying attention to that.”

Hill sees the sport as a way to channel her energy, even the negatives, into something good.

“You can put your anger or anything built-up in you into something positive instead of something negative or something that will get you in trouble,” she says. “Wrestling can help you through it.”

Hoke sisters Isabella “Bella” and Gabriella “Gabby” Kessey also have seen the benefits of the sport.

Both struggled with anxiety and the self-image issues so common to many young girls.

Gabby’s anxiety was so extreme that she refused to speak during her first years of school.

“As a kid, I chose to be mute,” she says. “I would not talk in any uncomfortable situations. My anxiety always got the best of me.

“It made it tough to practice sometimes. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here. Everyone else was in the room on the mat working while I’m in the hallway trying to calm myself down.”

As Gabby grappled with her anxiety, the focus and discipline of wrestling helped her mental and physical health.

“She turns into a different person on the mat,” Bella says, an arm around her sister’s shoulder.

Bella wrestled against boys in middle school, but once she reached high school, the possibility of getting hurt led her to leave the sport.

Once the Bucks formed a girls’ squad, she came back.

“It’s not like I’m uncomfortable wrestling guys, but I don’t want to get hurt that badly,” Bella says. For girls who wrestle in heavier weight classes, having female opponents is essential to their ability to compete.

The Kesseys always had the support of their family, but they didn’t always feel it from opponents or others involved in the sport.

Some boys would forfeit instead of wrestling Bella. And she’ll never forget being sent out of the gym alone during a competition for no offense she knows of besides being female.

“I feel like people don’t understand a lot of female wrestlers,” Sa says. “Like, guys always think female wrestlers are doing it for attention or to be cocky or something, but if you just sanction women’s wrestling, we wouldn’t have to be in boys’ wrestling.”

Hoke County wrestlers battle during a girls’ match in May of 2021.
Thirty-two states offer sanctioned state championships, with North Carolina one of the 18 that do not.

The Bucks girls have a spotless dual-team record, but they’ve only had seven matches in three years because of a lack of teams to challenge.

Outside of conference contests, Hoke has only been able to face teams in Cumberland County.

“The (Sandhills Athletic) Conference wouldn’t give a girls’ tournament because every school didn’t have a girls’ team,” Walworth says. “I think that’s not necessarily the best idea because if you don’t ever do it, it won’t ever happen. We can find reasons not to, but let’s find reasons to do.”

“The reason it’s not going to go faster is because there are coaches who are afraid if they get girls, they’re going to have to forfeit boys. And they may, that first year. You’re going to have a down year, but we go with what we have.”

Walworth believes the gains will ultimately outweigh the losses, and any opportunity to spread the growth of the sport is worthwhile.

“Once you’ve wrestled, you’re different,” he says.

He’s seen the sport change young men and women.

“It’s been like a savior to some due to home life, broken families, no structure,” he says.

“It’s a different lifestyle. The self-discipline is above any other sport.”

Locklear’s life changed when he joined the squad, and it’s still giving him the tools to enrich young lives and lift his community.

“It caught me at an early age as a troubled teenager. I saw the benefit that it had in my life and on a lot of my classmates,” he says.

“And then to be able to turn around and coach and have that kind of impact on kids’ lives in the very area that I grew up in has been big.”

She’s already aiming for a college scholarship in the sport. According to Next College Student Athlete’s scholarship portal report, only 60 roster sports are available at Division III and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) schools in North Carolina. Laurinburg’s St. Andrews and Greensboro College are the only two with women’s wrestling programs in the state.

Women’s wrestling has been an Olympic sport since 2004. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to drop men’s and women’s wrestling in 2013, to take effect in the 2020 Games. But after backlash due to the sport’s long Olympic history dating back to ancient times, it was reinstated.

Bringing girls into the sport could be crucial to sustaining success.

Walworth added Rachel Borman to his coaching staff, specifically to assist with the Bucks girls’ team.

“They have been able to grow within the sport and also help the sport grow. It’s been wonderful to see our girls be able to do that,” she says.

The Bucks are aware of their status as trailblazers, but with a leaky roof, waterbugs and worn-out gear in the practice facility they call “the dungeon,” the girls manage to stay humble.

“I find it funny because we’re coming from Hoke,” says Daniels, a rising senior who’s still wrestling despite a slew of surgeries.

“Who woulda thought?”

As for the lackluster practice facility, “We do with what we’ve got and we do great with what we have,” she says.

“We’re expected to do so well given such low circumstances. Either way, we make it through. We come in underdogs and go out on top.”

“For the hand that we’ve been dealt, we dominate,” adds teammate Angelina Kulczewski.

Her Polish grandmother tells her all the time that she can still get into ballroom dancing.

Fighting underweight in the 113 class, Kulczewski’s determination outweighs her thin frame.

“I haven’t quit because I have that drive within myself. I know that I’m not going to quit fighting,” she says, and her teammates give her an ovation. “Nobody can make me quit. I don’t care how many times I lose. I can’t quit.”

It’s the perfection of difficult work by the directing board of trustees of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA), of which Oak Park and River Forest High School young ladies wrestling trainer Fred Arkin is a co-administrator.

“We’ve been laboring for quite a while to persuade the IHSA to perceive young ladies wrestling as a game,” said Arkin. “There were around 350 young ladies taking part four or five years prior. One year from now, we hope to be near 2,000.”

Arkin is astonished at not just how quick young ladies wrestling in Illinois has filled lately, yet additionally the intensity being shown.

“The ability level of the young ladies has come far up,” he said. “Some of them are unfathomably cultivated.”

The current year’s secondary school wrestling season this year was one of an uncommon nature. It was curtailed and moved to the spring because of COVID-19. Arkin said therefore, OPRF’s numbers were down. There were only 10 young ladies on the list, contrasted with 16 last season.

“We had expected around 20 to 25, however no one was in the structure and we were unable to select,” he said.

Nonetheless, Arkin is hopeful the turnout will improve for the Huskies next season assuming full, face to face guidance is permitted this fall. He’s likewise cheerful that the school will enlist a female mentor.

OPRF’s young ladies didn’t wrestle seriously until June 21 at the IWCOA meet in Springfield. All things being equal, the Huskies fared moderately well as five of their seven members justified all-state respects, including Bentley Hills and Camila Neuman at 101 pounds, Maria Diaz at 126, Trinity White at 160 and Tiffany White at 170. What’s more, Keydy Perleta and Bella Tyma contended at 138 pounds.

Tiffany and Trinity White are the more youthful kin of Isaiah White — a three-time state champion for OPRF and a double cross NCAA All-American at Nebraska. They set second in their particular weight classes.

“Tiffany is a top-type contender,” said Arkin. “Trinity came out this year as a rookie with no related knowledge and had the option to beat some exceptionally prepared grapplers while heading to the finals.”

Neuman likewise contended in the Huskies’ young men group at 106 pounds and Arkin accepts that experience will just assistance her one year from now.

“Camila has shown inconceivable development,” he said. “She’s been a committed laborer and worked out each day during the pandemic.”

Arkin plans to keep his grapplers dynamic this late spring by taking an interest in camps, exercises and invitationals. The expectation is that the difficult work being done now will pay off in February, when the state finals happen in Bloomington.

“The young ladies have been buckling down,” Arkin said. “They need to win the state title one year from now.”

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