For four years, Haley Genster wondered when Olympia High School would be able to field a complete girls wrestling team.
That time is now. For the first time, the school has enough athletes to populate a team.
“I’m so glad I got to see it,” said Genster, a senior. “Even if it’s my last year, I’m glad I got to see it.”
The Bears are the latest team to join the ranks of a sport that has progressively emerged across the state since it was sanctioned by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association nearly a decade ago.
“As a sport, we’re outliers,” Genster said. “It’s really cool to be part of an emerging sport. It’s cool to see it grow.”
Genster was one of five girls at Olympia to turn out last season. She, along with Ann Butler, Sharifa Davis, Hailey Henry and Karlee Mosser often didn’t have the opportunity to compete because they lacked numbers.
This year, the Bears have a wrestler in most of the 14 weight classes that will be bracketed at Mat Classic XXIX in February.
“We weren’t able to have duals,” Olympia coach Ryan Pittman said about last season. “We only competed in tournaments. We couldn’t really even compete as a team because we’d only send, two, three, four girls last year. This year, we’re able to have duals and actually compete for a team championship.
“The more girls that we have that come out, the better community we can start to build to get more girls involved every single year.”
Pittman, who teaches physical education, said he did his best to recruit athletes to join the team. He gives most of the credit to his returning wrestlers for selling the program to their classmates.
“I think the big thing has been them stepping up as leaders,” Pittman said. “In their leadership roles in the program, and in their leadership roles around school.
“They’re able to show that they can lead other girls, and get them involved, and get them interested.”
The sport continues to grow locally and around the state.
This is the first season that the Class 4A South Puget Sound League, which Olympia joined this year, has officially scheduled dual meets for girls.
Jim Meyerhoff coached at Emerald Ridge when the sport began to take off. Now the athletic director at Puyallup, he surveyed the league coaches to see if an official schedule for this season would work. Olympia and Rogers compete as individual teams — eight wrestlers are required to be considered a full team — while Puyallup and Sumner, Emerald Ridge and Graham-Kapowsin, and Curtis and Bellarmine Prep combine for meets.
“If we’re going to try to grow the sport, we need to try to emulate what the boys are doing, because they’re having dual meets,” Meyerhoff said.
In the past, it was tough to try to schedule dual meets, because of uneven participation, he said. Now, as the sport continues to develop, more options have emerged.
Instead of being an addition to the boys varsity meets, the girls at Olympia now compete under the lights.
“It’s amazing,” Genster said. “It’s cool to be validated for our effort. We aren’t the opening act anymore. We have our own act.”
There is more of a team emphasis with increased participation, said Henry, a junior, who was a state alternate last year.
“It’s going to be really fun because it’s less of an individual limelight,” she said. “It sheds light on the fact that we’re all doing something incredible.”
The sport’s format has significantly changed since the inaugural tournament in 2007. The 14 weight classes now included have increased from the nine originals.
During the three years before girls wrestling became a sanctioned sport, the girls who wrestled at the Tacoma Dome competed in an invitational format, where they were bracketed into groups of four.
State tournament participation nearly tripled between 2007 and 2015.
“Up to that point, it had been scattered,” Meyerhoff said. “Once it became official, everybody started recruiting hard to say, ‘You can win a state championship. You can place at state.’ They hadn’t been able to say that before.”
Olympia can now compete for one — as individuals and as a collective group.
“This is what our goal was,” Genster said. “Our first team. … I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
Genster and Henry agreed that the sport has helped each of them grow individually.
“I’m growing up because of this sport,” Genster said. “I’m becoming my own person.”
Said Henry: “This sport really brought me out of my shell. It gave me confidence. I don’t know why every girl isn’t doing this sport, because it’s such a confidence booster. You really learn to be individually responsible for yourself, and self-discipline.”
2016-17 girls wrestling primer
Team to watch
With Amy Earley entering her 10th season as the program’s head coach, Yelm is, as it has been the past several years, projected to be the most dominant girls program in the area. The Tornados have sophomore Phoenix Dubose (sixth at state, 105 pounds) and Chelsey Rochester (participant, 120) returning from state tournament appearances. According to Earley, Yelm has enough returning wrestlers, and several up-and-coming newbies, to make a good run at the Tacoma Dome if the team remains healthy. Yelm won its girls-only, season-kickoff tournament, which included 35 teams.
WRESTLERS TO WATCH
Carly Smith, Yelm, fr.: Aggressive and focused, she has already made noise as a freshman with an undefeated record this season. Will likely settle at the 130-135 weight class range.
Chelsey Rochester, Yelm, jr.: Third-year wrestler for the Tornados is relentless and one of the hardest-working athletes at practice according to Earley. Projected to settle at 130 or 135.
Ariana Zemke, Yelm, sr.: Wrestled freestyle in Japan last year when her family was deployed there. Was a state qualifier in 2015, and is projected to wrestle at 140 or 145.
Hailey Henry, Olympia, jr.: Relentless and gritty, was a state alternate for the Bears last season. Has been wrestling at 125 pounds.
Matlyne Mecham, Shelton, sr.: Took sixth at the state tournament in the 145-pound weight class last season, and projected to make a repeat appearance at the Tacoma Dome.
Returning state participants: Sidnee Arcury, Centralia, sr.; Anna Dick, Elma, sr.; Phoenix Dubose, Yelm, so.; Tyler Jorgenson, Centralia, jr.; Matlyne Mecham, Shelton, sr.; Chelsey Rochester, Yelm, jr.