Tolleson Union High School girls wrestling team

The Tolleson Union High School girls wrestling team is making its mark on the Valley wrestling scene. 

For years, girls were attempting to merely fit into the high school wrestling community.

Now, with the Arizona Interscholastic Association and gender-specific teams backing them, Arizona girls’ wrestlers have the chance to stand out.

In May, the AIA announced it would sanction girls wrestling as an emerging sport, including sectionals and a state tournament, for the first time, much like it did months earlier in beach volleyball.

Girls had previously been able to wrestle on high school teams. However, the lack of a separate league and other female opponents kept potential athletes away from the mat.

Tolleson Union High School girls wrestling coach Cory Nelson said females who might not feel comfortable in other sports, due to size or other athletic factors, are welcome and encouraged to wrestle.

“The great thing about wrestling is that no other sport is going to tell a 220-girl, or a girl who’s just 100 pounds, ‘we’ve got a spot just for you,’ whereas wrestling not only has that, it’s actually an advantage to have girls that size because then they fill in some weight classes,” he said.

Because of small rosters, girls still often wrestle equally sized boys in practice. Having their own competitions and the opportunity to be crowned a state champion at the end of the season makes Horizon High wrestler Andrea Horanzy feel like she and other girl wrestlers finally have their own identity.

“Before I kind of felt isolated being the only girl, like I wasn’t important, especially because I was losing a lot against the boys my size. Now, I feel more included,” said Horanzy, the lone girl on Horizon’s wrestling team.

Beside differences in muscle mass and natural strength, Casteel coach Frank Torres said several potential wrestlers, and their parents, felt uncomfortable at the prospect of their daughters in such close contact to similar-aged boys.

“A couple years ago, I had five junior high cheerleaders walk in and say they wanted to wrestle. I let them do it for a couple of practices, and they didn’t come back because they were wrestling the boys. I asked them what drove them away, and to boil it down, it was just strange for them, being that close and having that kind of contact with boys,” Torres said.

He calls wrestling one of the most inclusive sports girls can be a part of in high school. All different body shapes and sizes are welcome, even encouraged. With 10 weight classes spanning from 101 to 225, with competitors of equal size, girls who might be too big or small for other sports actually provide their teams with a scoring advantage.

Furthermore, he said the boys on the high school wrestling scene are often the girls’ biggest cheerleaders.

“Nobody gets more excited, and there’s no louder cheers than when one of your girls makes a good move or wins,” Torres said.

The sport, by nature, requires athletes to maintain close contact with one another to compete and train. Stefany Valencia, a first-year wrestler for Westwood, took third place in her weight class at the Anthony Robles Eastside Women’s Tournament on January 12.

She is not the only one who found her first athletic calling in wrestling. By proximity necessary in training, the wrestlers have virtually no choice but to bond.

“You have to get close with the girls to practice. Then we start talking to each other outside about wrestling, and we start knowing each other,” Valencia said.

There is also a particular sense of pride the girls get from being on the ground floor of an emerging sport, setting the first records for girls down the line to break.

Mariah Gramza, one of just two girls on the Perry High wrestling team, took first place in her weight class in Perry’s first meet of the season.

For years as a wrestler, Gramza could only face boys. She sensed silent judgment that she lacked skill and was out of place on the mat. Holding up a winner’s medal, the first Perry girl to do so in wrestling, it was clear the tide had begun to turn.

“It kind of felt nice winning and proving them wrong,” she said.

The rules of the sport have not changed. Neither has the coaching. What’s different, though, is the sense of accomplishment the girls get from participating in their own activity.

It’s just individualized so they can compete against other girls,” Horizon coach Chris Hawes said. “That makes a world of a difference. You can start to build the culture.”