Francis Howell senior Emily Eberwine likes trying new things. She plays softball, lacrosse and now, she wrestles.
“A couple of days before tryouts, I thought it would be fun,” Eberwine said. “I have a friend whose brother is a good wrestler. That’s all I knew about it [but] I was on the first-ever girls lacrosse team at Howell. I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be a part of that first team, too.’ So I decided to wrestle.”
Eberwine, who wrestles at 126 pounds, has taken to the sport. She’s ranked in top 5 in the state in her weight class.
St. Charles junior Kaitlyn Clutter also is new to the sport. However, she was familiar with wrestling.
“I learned about wrestling from my older brother and my father when I was younger,” Clutter said. “When I got to high school, I did stats for our boys’ team during my freshman and sophomore years. After watching the boys wrestle, I was inspired by how much they really care for each other like family.
“I wanted to be in a sport like that because I have always been a team player. When my team is winning, then I feel like I personally am winning.”
Her brother, Alex Lee [AJ] Clutter, was a big influence on her going out for the sport.
“Yes, he was. Because if I wasn’t at a meet watching and taking stats, AJ and I would be wrestling at home and that helped me to become interested in this sport and to fall in love with it as well,” Clutter said. “My father was really excited, but my mom didn’t like the idea. Yet, she did prefer me to wrestle girls rather than boys. My friends were very supportive and ready to cheer me on.”
St. Charles junior Caitlyn Thorne said her going out for wrestling was a given.
“I have been around wrestling my whole life because my dad was the head wrestling coach at the high school when I was little, and my brother and I would go to practice with him sometimes, or we would go to the meets with my mom,” Thorne said. Her dad, she said, put her in wrestling at an early age, but her grandfather protested her wrestling boys and signed her up for gymnastics. “[Since] I didn’t have enough time for both, I chose to do gymnastics and quit wrestling.”
Now, with girls wrestling being offered, Thorne came back to the sport.
“I think my parents were definitely surprised, especially because I quit gymnastics, which I had been doing for 11 years, to wrestle,” Thorne said. “They were both really supportive of me. I think my dad was excited because he has always tried to get me to wrestle but I never would because I didn’t want to wrestle guys. My friends were also surprised because I had always done gymnastics, which is completely different than wrestling, but they were also supportive of me.”
Eberwine, Clutter and Thorne are among a record number of girls across the state who have been pouring sweat and blood onto wrestling mats this winter. Missouri is one of 14 states that have sanctioned girls wrestling.
Girls in Missouri will compete in their own postseason action.
The state tournament is Feb. 14-16 at Mizzou Arena. Girls will compete in the following weights: 103, 110, 116, 121, 126, 131, 136, 143, 152, 167, 187 and 235. The top four finishers in each weight class will receive state medals.
The boys’ tournament is that weekend as well.
The start of something big
According to the Missouri State High School Activities Association [MSHSAA] record book, 18 females previously qualified to compete in state championships, wrestling against male competitors.
Lafayette’s Ashley Hudson qualified in 2005 and 2006 for state. She went on to a successful college wrestling career at Oklahoma City.
MSHSAA spokesman Jason West said there was a push to add girls wrestling to the state’s menu of high school sports. “It came up enough times that we surveyed the membership … It took off from there.”
West said the topic “got on the annual ballot and got approved and here we are.”
“There are 970 girls on weight management in the state to be eligible to wrestle,” West said. “We’ve had much faster success than we anticipated. Last year, there were 110 girls on the eligibility roster during the season. As soon as it opened up, that number grew much larger.”
Fort Zumwalt North coach Matt Steinhoff said he has had girls compete on his boys’ teams before.
“We’ve had a few girls come out in the past, but not a lot,” Steinhoff said. “Maybe that was due to the fact that they would be competing with the boys. It seems like it has been a big success so far, this year.”
St. Charles coach Kevin Dill said the move by the state to add wrestling was overdue.
“I would say yes,” Dill said. “For several years now there have been more and more girls wrestling in the guys’ division and that shows with over 900 girls coming out this first year. I was not surprised by the numbers. I knew of several other coaches that wanted this and were going to push hard to create girls’ teams at their schools.”
Francis Howell girls wrestling coach Mark Malawey said he is a little surprised at how the sport has exploded.
“To see it taking off so well is unreal,” Malawey said. “We went to Battle High [in Columbia], and there were 43 teams there competing.”
Malawey used to coach the boys’ team at Francis Howell before he stepped away from the position. Now, he’s back.
“You know when I first heard about girls wrestling is when Kevin Stroh, the head [boys] coach, was over at my house in the summer,” Malawey said. “I got out of wrestling 12 years ago. I coached for 18 years at Francis Howell. I just coached football. Now, I’m back to coaching three sports because I also do pole vaulting in track. Kevin said, ‘You’re going to be the head girls’ coach,’ and I started laughing.”
Malawey took the job, and he’s glad he did.
“The girls are awesome,” he said. “I’ve jumped back in with both feet.” None of his 12 girls had any previous wrestling experience. “That’s what makes them so much fun to coach. They don’t have any bad habits.”
Francis Howell Athletic Director Sean Erwin said the school is strongly supporting the program.
“Girls wrestling has caught on at Howell and developed a strong following,” Erwin said. “It has really elevated the interest level in wrestling both on the girls’ and boys’ side. Our girl wrestlers are passionate about the sport and our students, parents and fans have been very supportive.”
Fort Zumwalt North Athletic Director Ted Hickey said it helps grow the sport when more people are exposed to it. “I will say that it’s brought about a good deal of excitement, curiosity and interest in the sport,” Hickey said.
Wrestle like a girl
Some might question why MSHSAA would sanction the sport.
“I think there are people out there that don’t know and understand why there is a need,” Dill said. But in his mind, there is no question that the sport is good for girls.
“Just like the guys, it teaches the importance of discipline, work ethic, commitment and leadership,” Dill said. “They learn to keep a positive attitude when adversity hits. Wrestling builds character. Learning discipline and commitment will help them in all aspects of their life.”
Timberland coach Jeffrey Renz agreed.
“This sports will do so much for young ladies,” Renz said. “It gives them another avenue for fitness, for competition, for being a part of something bigger than self; and the potential for wrestling in college for girls is greater than it’s ever been. The benefits for girls are the same as boys. It helps you get your body in shape, it helps build a mental toughness so when things get tough in wrestling and life, you keep pushing through.
“The famous Dan Gable quote is ‘Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’ I believe this is true for boys and girls.”
Steinhoff said his girls have adapted quickly.
“The novelty of being a girl wrestler is wearing off,” Steinhoff said. “Now it’s mostly about the work.”
That’s how it should be, said Todd Hayes, Timberland’s athletic director.
“Wrestling is a great sport for everybody,” Hayes said. “It doesn’t matter how tall, fast, short you are. Anybody can be successful with hard work.”
Clutter, who at press time was 22-1, is glad to have the opportunity to wrestle.
“This experience is very valuable to me,” Clutter said. “If they didn’t start girls wrestling at St. Charles High, I would have never competed at all, and this sport would not have impacted my life in all the positive ways that it has throughout this season.”
Eberwine is having a blast wrestling. She won first place in two tournaments and came in second in three other meets.
“I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t have any expectations going into it,” Eberwine said. “I’ve met a new group of people. I wasn’t expecting the way wrestlers warm up to get ready. Doing handsprings and cartwheels and carrying each other. But it’s good. I’m having a lot of fun.
“My parents were surprised when I said I wanted to wrestle but they told me to go for it. They didn’t think they would get into it as much as I have. But they love it. They come out and cheer. My dad is thinking of being a referee so he can keep watching.”
Renz believes girls wrestling in Missouri is the start of something big.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter in one of the oldest sports in the world,” Renz said. “Girls wrestling will continue to grow every year and the quality of the wrestling will grow with it. I’m very fortunate to be the first girls head coach at Timberland and I am very excited about the future of girls wrestling.”
The phrase “wrestle like a girl,” takes on a whole new meaning now, Renz said.
“I think the term ‘wrestle like a girl’ is even more relevant now,” Renz said. “It goes from being a term of belittling boy wrestlers to a term of power saying ‘be strong and tough like girls who wrestle are.’”