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Girl wrestler aims to show she belongs; Gets 2nd chance to take on boys in Lancaster

Cristta Hartinger is a former cheerleader and an ex-model but she's also a tough competitor.

That intensity helps the only girl wrestler at Lancaster High School fit right in with the boys on the team.

The tall, rangy teen this fall won the right to join the school's junior varsity team, a year after she was denied a spot on the squad, and she expects to win all of her matches.

"I get super angry when I lose," Cristta, 16, said in an interview. "I have to leave the gym."

Cristta, the only girl participating in a boys sport at Lancaster High, is one of a small number of area girls who wrestle with and against boys.

While having a girl wrestler on a boys team is a rarity, the Warsaw Central School District has two on the high school team.

"We definitely don't discriminate," Robert Hirsch, coach of the Warsaw High wrestling team, said in an interview before he was suspended by the district following a fight in the locker room among wrestling teammates that left a 14-year-old boy with a broken jaw and two older wrestlers facing charges of hazing.

Warsaw senior Hanna Grisewood on Friday broke the state high school record for most wins by a girl wrestler.

Advocates say the rise of girl wrestlers is a natural extension of the long-standing push to give girls equal access to athletics.

"The guys all like Hanna. They treat Hanna and now, this year, Kendra [Kenyon, a freshman], like one of the guys," said Ed Stores Jr., athletic director for Warsaw High.

Just five girls wrestled on boys teams in the 2010-11 season in Section VI, which covers schools in Western New York, according to Nina Van Erk, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Warsaw competes in Section V.

Statewide, 44 girls -- and 23,187 boys -- wrestled on boys teams during that school year, Van Erk said.

Cristta got into the sport about two years ago because she has two brothers and two male cousins who wrestle, and because she liked the intense, one-on-one competition.

"I've always been a tomboy," the Lancaster junior said. Her younger brother, Tyler, is a freshman on the squad.

She previously was on the school's cheerleading squad and worked as a model but gave it up to focus on wrestling.

Cristta trains with a coach at the Cobra Wrestling Academy in Depew, and she has traveled across the country to take part in wrestling tournaments for girls. She finished fourth in her 124-pound weight class at the United States Girls' Wrestling Association national championships last April in Michigan.

Cristta, who stands 5-feet-8 1/2 , said she can hold her own with boys in her weight class even though "they're way stronger."

A girl who wants to play on a boys team must complete the physical fitness test outlined in the state Education Department's selection/classification screening. A mixed competition review panel uses those test scores as its members decide whether to allow the girl to try out for the team.

In Cristta's case, a panel composed of a school doctor, a gym teacher and her pediatrician decided not to let her wrestle with the boys last season.

When her mother, Renee, questioned the decision, she was told that their concerns were "muscle mass difference" and "social/pubertal issues," Cristta said, but she didn't receive further explanation.

Brian Wild, the school's athletic director, said he was not involved in the decision and couldn't comment on the reasons for it.

This year, Renee Hartinger requested a meeting with Wild and Cesar Marchioli, the new principal at Lancaster High. "I said, 'You're discriminating against her,' " she noted.

Cristta's mother suggested letting her daughter begin on the junior varsity team, and that's what the review panel recommended this fall.

"It's fine, because she can prove herself and we'll see what happens," Renee Hartinger said.

The start of Cristta's junior varsity career was delayed after she was caught drinking alcohol at her school's Sept. 2 football game. It was a punishment levied by the school district, Cristta and her mother said.

Cristta was allowed to begin practicing with the team Dec. 5, and she participated in her first meet against Frontier High School last Wednesday. She won.

She hopes to wrestle her way up to the varsity and win a college athletic scholarship.

At a recent practice in the high school's north gym, Cristta wore her long brown hair underneath black headgear.

She and a revolving cast of partners faced off for 30-second wrestling sessions, followed by 10 seconds of rest as coach Ron Lorenz barked out instructions to the team.

Her coach said Cristta has had good coaching and works hard.

The boys didn't seem to handle Cristta with any special care as she and her partners twisted and contorted and grabbed each other by the head, waist and legs in an effort to gain leverage and pin each other on the mat.

"It's tiring," Cristta said as she took a knee during a break.

"She knows a lot of advanced moves," said Mike Kania, a freshman who wrestles at 120 pounds and practiced with Cristta. "She's powerful. She's quick. She's good."

Cristta said she prefers wrestling boys to wrestling girls because she finds it more challenging, and she doesn't find it uncomfortable to wear spandex and grapple on the ground with a boy who's also wearing a spandex singlet.

"You don't think about it. There's nothing to think about -- you just wrestle," she said.

At Maryvale High, sophomore Courtney Woods is in her second year wrestling on the boys team. "She fits in very well," athletic director Steve Griffin says of Courtney, who also plays varsity volleyball.

Boys typically have more muscle mass than girls, and this disparity is more pronounced in the heavier weight classes and can lead to rotator cuff injuries for girls, said Alex Conti, wrestling coach at Fredonia High.

Carlene Sluberski set the state girls record of 117 wins before graduating from Fredonia in 2009. Conti recalled one tournament where Sluberski, who wrestled at 103 pounds, went 8-0 wrestling against boys after suffering a dislocated finger in the first match.

"She made you want to work harder as a coach," he said.

Some boys didn't want to wrestle Sluberski, Conti said, and a few tried to hurt her, but most ended up respecting her.

Hirsch, state director for the USA Wrestling women's program, said he's glad Cristta is getting her chance this year.

"Why shouldn't a girl be able to wrestle?" Hirsch asked.

email: swatson@buffnews.com