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Inaugural high school girls wrestling invitational offers rare opportunity

SANBORN – Jessica Seekins wore her hair dyed pink and a look of dismay as she sat in the stands at the inaugural NYSPHSAA girls wrestling invitational tournament on Saturday afternoon at Niagara County Community College.

The Salamanca freshman had never wrestled another girl in a competitive environment, and this was supposed to be her chance. It was the reason she had traveled 80 miles to be here, the reason she wore a singlet, the reason for the tape wrapped snug around her wrestling shoes, keeping them tight against her ankles.

“A lot of people tell me I can’t do stuff because I’m a girl, and I wanted to be able to make it throughout the whole season,” said Seekins, who wrestled at the varsity level but found she couldn’t defeat her much stronger male opponents. “I wanted to prove them wrong. And I actually enjoyed it. It was really fun.”

Seekins, 14, was assured of winning the heavyweight championship, the only wrestler at the tournament to compete at 285 pounds. It was a similar situation for the lone athletes who registered to compete in the 195- and 220-pound brackets. But because state rules permit wrestlers to move up one weight class, tournament organizers anticipated Seekins would get at least one match. The lightest of the trio would battle at 220 pounds, and then the 220-pound wrestler would step up to the heavyweight level. But that didn’t quite work out.

Forty-one female wrestlers representing 30 high schools and five sections from around New York clustered around a table before the start of the tournament to listen to Alex Conti, the Section VI girls wrestling director, thank them for attending.

“I apologize to the upper weights,” Conti continued. “We had one not show up. She was the key, because she was in the middle of the two of you. Otherwise I would have called you and let you know. But I’m so glad you’re here.”

Kristin Knuutila Clark, the daughter of Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer Eric Knuutila, who founded the NCCC wrestling program in 1973, spoke next.

“Remember, this is the first time we’re doing this, so this is exciting…” Clark said. “My dad’s a wrestling coach. When I was in high school, girls didn’t wrestle … so unfortunately, I missed my shot.

“But you guys get to live it. That’s awesome, right?”

***

At least 10 states sanction girls wrestling as a separate, official high school sport, with others in the process of adding it, according to various reports, and Conti hopes the NYSPHSAA invitational is an early step toward New York joining the group.

The state’s governing body for public high school sports requires at least six sections to host championships, with at least four teams participating in each, before crowning official state champs.

Until then, girls participate on boys’ wrestling teams. And they had to choose between wrestling in the girls’ invitational or the NYSPHSAA individual wrestling championships next Friday and Saturday in Albany.

“Our goal is to offer a state championship for girls, just like we do for boys, completely separate,” said Timm Slade, the executive director of Section VI. “But this is step number one. That’s why it’s an invitational, and we invited girls from all over the state of New York.”

The invitational’s allure was that it offered a rare chance for girls to strictly wrestle other girls.

Jenna Manganello, a junior from North Tonawanda and one of three competing in the 99-pound weight class, had only ever wrestled one other girl before Saturday, and she had to bump up a weight class to make it happen.

“It definitely motivates me more to work harder at this sport, knowing that there are more girls,” Manganello said, “and the fact that more girls are coming into this male-dominated sport. And just being around other females, it’s empowering.”

The athletes competed round robin-style, as opposed to in traditional brackets, with each girl wrestling every other competitor in their weight class, except for the eight girls at 126 pounds.

Since state rules cap wrestlers at five matches per day, the 126-pounders split into two pools, with the winner of each battling for the title.

Maya Porter, a senior from Shenendehowa who traveled nearly 300 miles, the farthest of any competitor to participate in the tournament, won the 126-pound title and was named most outstanding wrestler.

“It’s really fun and I think it’s really cool,” Porter said. “I just like to see everyone of my gender around. I feel closer to the sport. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a strange thing.”

***

Jolanda Ponce, a 195-pound senior from Otselic Valley Central, sat in the stands on the opposite side of the gymnasium from Seekins, the freshman heavyweight.

She, too, had been left without an opponent when the 220-pounder failed to show up.

“It hurt, honestly, because I feel like this is a test for me, how far I’ve gotten the last three years,” Ponce said.

Ponce had wrestled only boys in that span, and she had won only once, at the junior varsity level.

This was to be her final high school match, and like Seekins, her first opportunity to wrestle another female in a competitive setting.

Ponce said she was “really intimidated” when Seekins approached and asked if she’d like to wrestle in an exhibition match, but she agreed.

“Once you step on the mat, you lose, you win, it doesn’t matter, as long as you leave it all on the mat,” Ponce said.

Because of state rules barring competition between such disparate weight classes, Ponce and Seekins couldn’t compete against each other on the mats in the middle of the gym.

Instead, they took it across the hall, into the NCCC wrestling room, where the walls are lined with blue padding and above that, adorned with large framed photos of every team in school history.

The girls’ coaches and the frozen stares of 619 college wrestlers, all men, served as their audience.

Ponce, the lighter but more experience wrestler, won both matches by pinfall.

Afterward, Seekins said she learned a good deal about herself this season.

“I need to use my weight and not body shame myself,” Seekins said, “just use it to my advantage and take advantage of everything I’ve got to win a match.”

Ponce said her disappointment turned to pride.

“I’m really happy I had the opportunity to wrestle today,” Ponce said. “This tournament was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. And knowing that I’ve gone three years with basically a losing streak, this was the time to prove myself, that I’ve made it somewhere in the past three years. I wasn’t just showing up to practice and lifting and running for no reason. This was my challenge, and I think I succeeded.”

They each ended the afternoon on the podium, both champions.

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