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Prep wrestling: Girls get on board at state tournament

New Mexico conducts concurrent boys and girls state championships in many sports: cross country, swimming/diving, track and field, golf and tennis among them.

This weekend, wrestling joins that list.

The 2020 state tournament is Friday and Saturday at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, and for the first time, girls wrestling is an officially sanctioned state event.

The girls will be awarded individual state medals across 10 weight classes, and there will be an inaugural team champion come Saturday night.

“We feel really excited,” said Miyamura senior Nancy Rodriguez, who is a two-time state champion for the Patriots, but only unofficially as her victories came in exhibitions. “A lot of us are really nervous.”

Each bracket will have eight girls, making them half the size of the boys (16) in Classes 5A and 4A. Approximately 200 girls, separated by giant (minimum 30 schools in each) northern and southern districts, competed for state qualifying spots last week at Atrisco Heritage and Socorro High.

And the sport has roughly doubled in participation just since last year, said Scott Owen, an assistant director of sports at the New Mexico Activities Association and the NMAA’s point man for wrestling.

There were 165 girls in the 2018-19 school year that had a weight assessment for wrestling, which must be done in order to be eligible to participate, Owen said. This school year, the number swelled to 305.

“It was very positive as far as the opportunities that were provided,” Owen said, asked to describe what went right in this first year of sanctioned girls wrestling. “But we still have work to do in that area, as far as providing additional opportunities.”

Girls who wrestle inside Albuquerque Public Schools tend to agree.

“What’s been good is that our coaches are very supportive of it,” said Atrisco Heritage sophomore wrestler Yalixza Gonzalez. “They put the girls first on the team, and that means a lot to us. But (APS) doesn’t treat us the same as the guys.”

Gonzalez pointed out that the girls did not have a division at the prestigious Joe Vivian Classic in January — although to be fair, Vivian, a coaching legend, coached boys. And she said the girls felt slighted by not being afforded a chance to have their own metro championships. Other than football, girls wrestling was the only APS sport that will not have a scheduled metro tournament this school year.

However, there were scarcely 50 girls wrestling in APS — with several schools, like Highland, Atrisco Hertiage and Volcano Vista, owning a large percentage of that number. There were simply not enough girls to conduct a full metro event with complete individual brackets.

“We’re trying to maximize the opportunities for girls to participate and wrestle in events,” APS athletic director Kenny Barreras said. “Especially in a transition year. I still don’t know at this point that anybody has a true vision of what girls wrestling will become.”

APS girls wrestlers did have a handful of tournaments this season. They were held in conjunction with JV boys events.

“They weren’t able to stand alone,” Volcano Vista coach Ahren Griego said. “They need more events just for themselves. I know they would like that.”

Countered Barreras: “To hold a girls stand-alone event, I don’t know that we’re there yet. Because I don’t know that the participation is there yet.”

There are also multiple administrative hurdles to clear, Barreras said, in terms of the logistical (i.e. personnel and facilities) support required to stage girls stand-alone tournaments separate from a boys tournament.

But most everyone is in agreement that these issues will likely iron themselves out, eventually. Girls wrestling was only added as an official sport last May, barely six months ahead of the 2019-20 season, which is an incredibly fast turnaround.

“As participation grows, there will be more opportunities,” Owen said. “Obviously, we’ve got to get these first couple of years under our belt.”

Still, the girls are amply stoked about this huge stage this weekend. On Saturday at 5 p.m., instead of three mats on the floor of the Star Center for the boys finals in Classes 5A, 4A and 3A, there will be a fourth mat.

“It will mean a lot to actually be a state champion, not just an exhibition (champ),” Gonzalez said.

Meanwhile, the expertise and skill level of the girls continues to evolve, just as the numbers grow.

“More girls are more technical and involved in the sport,” said Rodriguez. “I love it, because as an individual, you learn about taking challenges.”

One of the girls to watch at state is Cleveland High senior Samantha Tuttle, who recently signed a national letter of intent to wrestle for Ottawa University in Arizona.

“When I started my freshman year, I was one of the only girls,” Tuttle said. “So this year, having girls wrestling sanctioned is a huge difference.”

Tuttle said she believes the two-district system needs tinkering, and that it would be better if there were twice as many districts, in order that down the road the girls could produce 16 state qualifiers at each weight, four from each district. As it is, the top four girls at each weight in the two districts qualified for the postseason.

“Everything we’re getting this year, it’s way better than it was,” Tuttle said. “Some of the girls that are kind of complaining about it, (they) haven’t been here since the beginning, so (they) don’t understand how things have changed and how things have gotten better for us. I think it’ll just keep getting better.”

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