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A League of Their Own

Cherry Hill West’s girls jumped at the opportunity to make history when the NJSIAA made wrestling an official sport for girls earlier this school year

Cherry Hill West High School has one of South Jersey’s biggest contingents of girls wrestlers since the sport was officially sanctioned by the NJSIAA for female students in October. Top row, left to right: junior Michelle Bermeo-Bautista, sophomores Skyy Hills and Lia Almonte and freshmen Alexis Katz and Evelyn Santana. Bottom row, left to right: Senior Liz Santana, junior Aniyah Moraza, and senior Olivia Lang. Not pictured but also on the team: Paige Tambussi, Alexa Castillo, and Jess Gonzalez. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

On a recent Friday night, Cherry Hill West High School’s wrestling team was about to begin a dual meet at Maple Shade, the Lions’ first match of the New Year.

Senior Liz Santana wasn’t there — she was buying a prom dress. But less than 48 hours later, Santana represented West at the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame Tournament at Timber Creek High School.

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Less than a month into the high school wrestling season, Santana boasted a 4–1 record with four pins. The senior is one of 11 girls on West’s wrestling team in the 2018–19 season, the first year that regional and state wrestling tournaments have been approved by the NJSIAA (New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association).

In the three months since the state has officially sanctioned the sport for females, students throughout New Jersey has decided to give wrestling a go. Kingsway Regional in Woolwich Township boasted having over 40 girls come out and Pennsauken High School had more than a dozen, too.

Cherry Hill West is benefiting from the wrestling statewide surge, too, with just under two dozen female students expressing interest this fall and 11 currently on the Lions roster.

“We were intimidated at first — it’s a boys sport, that’s how it’s looked at — but the coaches just made us feel so welcomed,” Santana said. “It’s a contact sport and I hadn’t done anything like that before. It puts me out there and gets me out of my comfort zone. I just face my fears, I learn how to face my fears. It’s an experience like no other. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

Santana has already been approached by at least one college recruiter about the idea of continuing to wrestle at the next level. Although she has participated on West’s track and cross country teams throughout high school, Santana made the tough decision to skip winter track in order to be a part of the first official girls wrestling team at West.

“I just couldn’t miss this opportunity,” she said. “We’re making history here. It means so much to me. I heard we’re going to have our picture on the wall. It’s a special feeling being apart of history, and for girls across the whole state.”

“I was going to wrestle in sixth grade but I was scared, intimidated by the guys because I would have been the only girl on the team,” said West freshman Alexa Castillo. “But once I saw West had a girls team, I knew I wanted to join right away.”

Since the sport is still in its infancy for females at the high school level, West, like the majority of schools, doesn’t have enough girl wrestlers for a dual meet team. But the girls are regularly wrestling in individual tournaments and have the opportunity to square off with other schools at times, too (the Cherry Hill West-Pennsauken dual meet, before the end of the month, could give girls on both teams some more match experience).

But for the first time in state history, New Jersey will host a tournament for girls at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in March, the same popular venue the boys tournament is held at the end of each season. The girls state tournament will be preceded by two regional tournaments (broken up by North and South sectors) on the same weekend the boys are wrestling in district tournaments.

“I think it’s top four or five (advance),” Cherry Hill West wrestling coach Zach Semar said. “If you place in that weight class, you’ll get to go to states.”

Previously, individual girls could join high school wrestling teams, but there wasn’t any reward at the end of the season (via a end-of-year tournament) and their matches were few and far between during the season since it wasn’t an official sport.

According to Semar, Princeton University head wrestling coach Chris Ayres became an important ambassador for girls in the last year. Ayres’ daughter, Chloe, shined as a freshman at Princeton High School last year.

“Wrestling has been going on forever in South Jersey,” said Max Sullivan, who stars on West’s football and wrestling teams. “So for them to be given the opportunity to go to a state tournament, I think it’s great. We might be able to come away with a couple of Cherry Hill West state champs, that’d be nice.”

Sullivan and his male wrestling teammates — along with West’s popular coaching staff — made the girls feel like they were a part of the program from the jump this fall, which took away some of the intimidation factor or “first-day-of-school” type feeling.

“The first day of practice I was intimidated because you see all of these boys,” junior Michelle Bermeo-Bautista said. “But it was really fun. You learn new moves and then you do it, it’s a rewarding feeling.”

“I got my first pin last weekend and the win was exhilarating,” said senior Olivia Lang, a former long-time cheerleader who also plays lacrosse. “I’ve had wins with teams, with cheer competitions, but I’ve never had a win like I did after the pin, it’s just a different type of happy, it’s insane.”

For Sullivan, it was a no brainer to welcome in his new teammates. Perhaps they’ll share a bus ride to Atlantic City in two months.

“It feels good to be on the right side of history,” Sullivan said. “They’re wrestling in the room with us, going through the same practice as us. They’re in it, they’re West wrestlers, they’re every bit of the Lions we are.”

Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.

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