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I love being a part of history: How New Jerseys first womens college wrestling team is breaking barriers

6 min read
https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2021/01/16/new-jersey-women-wrestling-team-making-history/4167664001/

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Sandra Guerrero has done this before.

Countless times over the past 11 years, the college freshman from West Orange has made her way to the wrestling mat to spar with her teammates. She’s done it from the recreational level through high school. She’s honed her craft so well that last year she was crowned a state and regional champion, posting a perfect 22-0 record with 21 pins on her way to becoming her program’s first state champion.

But, hitting the mat in 2021 will feel different.

This year, Guerrero will suit up in green and gold, representing New Jersey City University alongside a budding group of women from New Jersey, New York and Maryland. Together, the team is raising the glass ceiling for female wrestling in New Jersey: They’re the first college women’s wrestling program in the state, and just weeks from their first competition.

“I’ve been doing it for so long,” Guerrero said after a team practice last week. “So, when all these people call me a trailblazer, I feel like I’m not the only one doing it, you know? It feels weird — but they say we are making history, and I love being a part of history.”

Although girls wrestling is booming in the Garden State — thanks to state sanctioning, more official competitions for girls and a rising generation of talent — opportunities for female wrestlers at the collegiate level remain limited. Until now, any female wrestler from New Jersey who wanted to continue wrestling in college either joined a wrestling club or their men’s team. Or, she found an out-of-state program.

With NJCU’s program, women can continue the sport and remain close to home. 

Naomi Henry (left) and Johnae Drumright during NJCU's women's wrestling practice.

“A lot of those girls don’t see college wrestling as an option,” Guerrero said, “but if you look online every day more and more schools are adding women’s wrestling programs, which I love to see.”

For New Jersey City University, the 2020 season was supposed to be the team’s breakout year. In 2019, the university introduced men’s and women’s wrestling to the school, with plans to expand both programs to full varsity status by fall. Then the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everyday life — stalling both teams’ debuts, with the women’s program yet to hit the mat.

Because the team is in its first year, however, head coach Elena Pirozhkova sees a silver lining. The former world champion and two-time United States Olympian is no stranger to fostering talent in what would essentially be a development year for her wrestlers. It’s something she did at the Olympic Training Center as a young athlete.

“The fact that we’ve been able to start somewhat of season I think is so important,” Pirozhkova said. “I was a little nervous because I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. Now I think we’ve set a good team culture.”

The team kicked off preseason in October with captain’s practices, and kept everything outdoors and socially distanced to abide with statewide safety regulations. After a few weeks, the team moved practice indoors — slowly escalating drills from minimal contact split between two groups to full-contact drills with the entire team.

The team gets tested regularly for COVID-19. To enter the NJCU athletics facility, athletes have to undergo an intense process that includes mandatory hand sanitizing, logging their credentials into the school’s system, and a temperature check.

Following safety guidelines, the team practices three times a week, with the occasional virtual meeting when the season gets interrupted by COVID-19 cases — around Thanksgiving, the wrestlers had to halt practice for a few weeks. The pandemic also limits the team’straveling opportunities — a major setback since all other collegiate women’s teams are out of state.

Despite the challenges, the team has pushed through the pandemic and now eyes its first round of competition in February and March.

“I keep telling the girls: You have a chance to be the first national champ for NJCU,” Pirozhkova said. 

First, and hopefully not last

Although NJCU is the first university in the region to have a women’s varsity program, other universities may follow suit because the sport has grown statewide and nationally.

The pandemic was a curve ball that athletic departments across the country continue to navigate, so it may be a while before another local university can launch a women’s wrestling team, said Chris Ayres, head coach of the men’s wrestling program at Princeton University.

Elena Pirozhkova, coach of the NJCU's women's wrestling team, looks on as Ana Gomez Lima (center) and Lockslea Mayers practice.

“There was a lot of momentum before COVID, and now I just don’t see it happening until we get out of it,” he said. “The athletic departments are struggling. They’re trying to figure out literally how to make ends meets — so adding [a team] is probably one of the last things on their minds. But, you never know.”

In the meantime, New Jersey men’s collegiate wrestling programs are open to female wrestlers. At Princeton, the team’s roster includes one female competitor: Demetra Yancopoulos, a junior from Yorktown Heights, New York.

“She’s been phenomenal,” Ayres said. “It’s been such a good thing for our guys, as well — for them to just see her and what she’s getting out of it. She’s just a great team member for everybody.”

Although Princeton doesn’t have a varsity woman’s program, Yancopoulos is in the process of recruiting other women at the school to start her own wrestling club, Ayers said. There are about 19 girls already signed up, he said.

In New Jersey, the Ayres family is credited with helping grow girls wrestling after pushing for it to become a NJSIAA-sponsored sport in 2019. Ayres’ daughter, Chloe, a high school senior, is a past state champion. Chloe fell in love with the sport after watching her younger brother wrestle, Ayres said.

As a father, Ayres is aware of how frustrating it has been for his daughter to navigate the limited opportunities to continue wrestling after high school. By simply offering more opportunities for female wrestlers, it helps the sport grow, he said.

“The number one thing you need for girls to show up is opportunities,” Ayres said. “There was no state tournament and there was a very small amount of girls competing in the state — and then we added the state tournament, and the numbers went through the roof for girls who were participating at the high school level.”

Lockslea Mayers (left) and Ana Gomez Lima play a hand slapping game as part of NJCU's women's wrestling practice.

Ayres predicts that New Jersey City University, as an early adopter of varsity wrestling for women, has positioned itself to be a wrestling powerhouse for female wrestlers. Years from now, it will be remembered as the birth place of college women’s wrestling in New Jersey. 

‘I didn’t know if this was my place’

Johnae Drumright, a freshman from Trenton, commutes an hour and a half by train and bus to get to practices. In the fall, she lived on campus. “It’s tougher, I’m not going to lie,” she said of the commute. “But it’s something [that] financially I had to make that decision, and I really enjoy wrestling so it’s not like the biggest hiccup.”

The young wrestler fell in love with the sport about three years ago. She was used to being the only female in the room at competitions. In 2019, she competed at the national championship tournament at the FargoDome in North Dakota with an all-female team of wrestlers. That was the first time she was surrounded by women on the mat. Now, it’s her new norm at NJCU.

“New Jersey is really known as one of the top states for wrestling,” Drumright said. “So, to hear it’s just now happening that a female wrestling team is in Jersey — it’s just really exciting, and it makes me look forward to what’s to come.

“Hopefully other schools and colleges follow so we can have closer teams to wrestle,” she said.

“If I would’ve seen a female wrestler or even knew the sport at a younger age I would have definitely joined,” Drumright said. “That’s why I almost didn’t join. I’ve never seen a female wrestler. It was just like a little taboo. I didn’t know if this was my place.”

But it was her place — and soon, other women will see that it’s theirs, too.

Follow Melanie Anzidei on Twitter @melanieanzidei  

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