SPOTSWOOD, NJ - Female wrestling has been growing at the high school level by leaps and bounds across the nation over the past six years. According to an article by ESPN last spring, female wrestling is the fastest growing high school sport in the nation, boosted in part by the addition of women's wrestling in the 2004 Olympics. New Jersey's high profile state high school wrestling tournament added a girls tournament last winter and this year the Greater Middlesex Conference will be the first to host a girls county wrestling tournament.
Spotswood High School and the Memorial Middle School wrestling teams have always been co-ed. Over the years, girls have come out for the teams, but none have completed a full season until last year when Melissa Wehrle, then an eighth grader, took to the mat for the Memorial Colts. Wehrle placed fourth in the county, losing in the third place match last winter.
The teen has been involved in karate for six years and was drawn to the sport after watching her older brother Bobby compete. Bobby Wehrle is a junior and a member of the Chargers wrestling team as well. Wehrle decided to join Memorial's wrestling team last year and was the only female on the team. Her mother and big brother were very supportive of her decision to get involved in the sport though her father needed a bit more convincing.
"It was kind of a pain," Wehrle said when asked how it felt to be the only girl on the Colts' wrestling team last season. "Schools are not equipped for girls changing and stuff. The boys, especially in middle school, are more immature. Nobody wanted to drill with me last year."
Wehrle tried convincing her friends to give the sport a try after last year's successful season. While some showed interest, only Katrina Cicero joined Wehrle in going out for the Chargers' 2019-20 wrestling squad. The pair are close friends and the only females on the team.
"She got a lot of our friends to sign up for it," Cicero explained. "But I was the only one who actually did it and it's pretty interesting."
The girls find a lot of their male teammates are still reluctant to drill with them during practice, but the pair is not deterred in their goal, which is to compete at the varsity level and eventually draw enough girls to the mat for a girls wrestling team at Spotswood High School.
"It's kind of a turning point in New Jersey where it's (female wrestling) becoming a lot more recognizable," Spotswood High School head wrestling coach Matthew Merrigan said. "It is in that foundational period and the interest level is definitely on the rise, especially locally."
Wehrle found her way to Elite Wrestling in Jackson after a middle school meet in Jamesburg last season. Girls wrestle for free and Wehrle took Cicero to Elite over the summer to introduce her to the sport. Elite Wrestling has three locations in New Jersey and offers wrestling training for boys and girls in all age groups.
While neither Wehrle or Cicero consider themselves trailblazers, both feel that bringing more girls into the sport would be beneficial.
"I think I just wanted to do it," Cicero said of becoming part of the Chargers wrestling team. "It would be nice if more girls joined so that there could be a girls team."
However, Cicero is fine with being a part of the Chargers wrestling team if it remains a co-ed program.
"For me, I really like wrestling," Wehrle said. "It would be awesome to see more girls do it. Some girls last year thought that only boys could join the team because over the loudspeaker they call it boys wrestling even though it was technically co-ed."
Wehrle also said the interest level is there from other girls, but most do not want to wrestle boys and their parents do not necessarily want them to wrestle boys either.
Wehrle and Cicero have found Merrigan and Memorial Middle School wrestling coach Daniel Krainski to be extremely supportive.
"Tolerance levels are so much better," Merrigan said of the introduction of female wrestlers into the Spotswood wrestling program. "What these ladies are doing is almost revolutionary because they have to endure so much. I'm so proud of the two of you. Other girls look up to you, especially at the middle school level."
This season, the Memorial Middle School's wrestling team has two girls. Cicero's younger sister Valerie, who is a sixth grader, joined the team as did seventh grader Taylor Belloti. Belloti and her twin brother Justine are both on Memorial's team this winter.
Both Merrigan and Krainski feel the interest level is there for expanding the number of girls involved in wrestling at Memorial and Spotswood High School, but are intimidated both by the fact that the sport is male dominated and more physically demanding than other sports. Krainski also pointed out that the borough's recreation department does not have a youth wrestling program.
"I think they are very brave for coming out for the team," Krainski said of Wehrle and Cicero.
"We are both so proud of these two," Merrigan said. "I definitely can see this growing into something where we can have two separate teams. As lovers of the sport of wrestling we just want to continue this and embrace this as much as we possibly can."
The Chargers open up the season on Thursday, December 19 with a home match against Monroe Township High School. Neither the Memorial Middle School nor the Spotswood High School wrestling teams cut players though with the grueling nature of the sport, many participants do drop out before the conclusion of the season.
The Chargers' varsity lineup will be determined by wrestle-offs among the team members starting early next week. Merrigan tapped Wehrle as a potential starter in her 132 weight class along with fellow freshmen Dan Pratas in the Chargers pre-season wrestling write up earlier this month. He feels the opportunity is there for both girls to gain junior varsity and varsity experience throughout the season this year.