WEST ORANGE, NJ – The West Orange High School (WOHS) girls wrestling team, now in its second year, is making history both at the high school and in New Jersey as part of a new national and worldwide movement acknowledging girls wrestling as a sport in its own right.
At least 15 states have approved girls wrestling as a sport beginning in 2019, including New Jersey, which was the 12th state to do so.
Girls were previously allowed to wrestle on coed teams and still can; but as schools begin to build full-size girls teams—meaning the team has enough members to compete in each weight class—it is expected that girls will choose to compete against other females, especially at the higher weight classes.
“Once you get over 132 pounds, it gets hard to wrestle boys,” said West Orange senior Sandy Guerrero, who wrestles girls at the 215-pound weight class. “It’s like wrestling men.”
Until there are enough full-size teams for competition, girls wrestling tournaments remain individual in nature, meaning that there are no official team placements/scores.
Building girls wrestling teams across the state is a process; but with the success of its inaugural 2019 season, the sport is growing quickly.
In fact, the WOHS team currently has 20 members after only having seven in the inaugural season last year.
The program at WOHS has expanded mostly by recruitment and word-of-mouth. Several girls had played other sports, such as track and soccer, but liked the idea of doing something new and different.
“At first, I just liked the idea that there were no tryouts; but it turned out to be so much more disciplined and serious,” said sophomore Esther Gratia. “Practices are different from middle school—they’re aggressive and you practice to win. It’s a different mindset and a different culture.”
For junior Elicia Kimble, wrestling offered something physical and demanding.
“I have seven brothers and three sisters, and things are always physical around my house,” she said. “I wanted to get stronger and hold my own.”
From the beginning, Guerrero and fellow West Orange wrestler Daniela Tacuri were incredibly successful, winning several championships in their weight classes.
In February 2019, Tacuri placed second and Guererro placed fourth in the state competition held in Atlantic City—and both girls are on track for another shot this year along with Gratia.
All three qualified on Jan. 11 to move forward, as Tacuri was a 6-5 winner at 114 pounds, Guerrero pinned her way to the championship at 215 pounds, and Gratia was a runner-up at 180 pounds.
Guerrero has wrestled for 10 years—first with the West Orange recreation program, then in middle school and now at WOHS in addition to participating in club wrestling. She is also adept in jiu jitsu, and her parents own a Martial Arts studio.
“I wanted to do something besides martial arts and I liked the idea of wrestling,” said Guerrero, who hopes to continue her wrestling career at New Jersey City University or East Stroudsburg, which both have women's wrestling programs.
Sophomore Allison Brizuela also chimed in about her participation on the team, stating that wrestling is hard but fun.
“There’s nothing like the feeling you get after your first win,” she said.
The girls team was especially impressive over the holidays, taking home several wins from the Bloomfield Girls Holiday Tournament after keeping against more than 180 wrestlers.
Guerrero earned four pins in her matches to earn her second Bloomfield Tournament Championship in the 215-pound class, and Tacuri took second place in the 114-pound class, which considered to the tournament's toughest weight class. Gratia took third place in the 180-pound class.
"It's a very big and prestigious tournament, and our girls had a very strong showing," said head coach Steve Zichella, noting that 10 girls competed in the tournament.
Girls and boys wrestling at the high school level is different from college, as high schools utilize a form of wrestling called folkstyle that is specific to the United States. Most colleges and universities in the United States, however, practice Collegiate wrestling, which is similar to folkstyle wrestling.
For this reason, serious wrestlers are encouraged to join clubs that teach them both Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling, which are practiced at the Olympics and other parts of the world.
Women's wrestling was first approved as an Olympic sport in 2004 and is now considered the reason for wrestling’s renewed interest.
At WOHS, the girls and boys wrestling teams are considered as a whole. The team practices six days a week, Monday through Saturday, with the exception of match/tournament days.
On the coaching staff with Zichella are assistant coaches Joe Spina, Jeff Mazurek, Mike Spagnola, Vin Cardasco and Eddie Beielgian.
According to the teammates, the same sense of community so well known to the boys team has also developed with the girls.
“I’ve never had actual girl friends until this year with wrestling,” said Kimble, whose teammates responded to her comment by hugging her.
With only four tournaments each season, the girls are hoping for more matches with local teams. To date, most of the rapid development in girls wrestling has been in South Jersey.
“I’m proud to be part of history and in establishing girls wrestling, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here,” said Guerrero.