During her time as a student manager for the Schenectady wrestling team, Anecia Singh had a recurring thought.
“Why isn’t there a girls’ team?”
While there’s a noted history of girls competing, and succeeding, against boys in high school wrestling, the issue of coed competition has often been a barrier for many.
This year, across Section II, girls such as Singh are taking their chance to get off the sidelines and step onto the mat. Singh, a senior at Schenectady, is a member of the merged Niskayuna/Schenectady team, one of 13 girls’ wrestling teams in Section II embarking on their inaugural season this winter.
“All my friends, they all wrestle, so it’s like, why not?” Singh said. “I know it can build your mindset, can build you up as a person and I just wanted to be more physically fit. So, why not wrestling?”
“Why not?” appears to be a mindset for up-and-coming girls’ sports around the area this winter. In addition to girls’ wrestling, Section II will also sponsor its first girls’ hockey team as six schools from Saratoga and Warren counties combined to form the Adirondack United squad.
Girls’ wrestling was granted emerging-sport status by the New York Public High School Athletic Association this school year. That status is earned when at least four of NYSPHSAA’s 11 sections have at least four teams competing in that sport. Another girls’ sport, flag football, will also operate under emerging status in the spring.
Along with Niskayuna/Schenectady, the other Section II girls’ wrestling programs set to compete this winter are Coxsackie-Athens, Shaker, Watervliet/Cohoes, Berlin/New Lebanon, Tamarac, Guilderland, Maple Hill, Shenendehowa, Whitehall, Salem/Cambridge, Granville and Colonie.
The new girls’ teams will mainly compete in “play days” this winter, multi-team events designed to get the wrestlers as much mat experience as possible. There’ll also be a few tournaments, primarily using round-robin formats instead of a traditional double-elimination bracket, again to maximize the number of matches for every wrestler.
It was a tournament this past January that got the ball rolling for what’s to come this winter.
On a Sunday morning in late January, Coxsackie-Athens hosted a girls-only wrestling tournament, billed as the first of its kind in the area, bringing together wrestlers from 28 schools representing six different sections and Vermont.
Jeremy Matson brought a couple of Niskayuna girls, including his daughter Makayla, to that event, saw the enthusiasm and began drumming up support for a girls’ program in the district.
“We’ve been doing a lot of promotion of the growth of women’s wrestling through social media,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of advertising, lobbying with the school districts seeking support.”
He got the support he was hoping for at Niskayuna, was installed as the program’s first head coach and started recruiting.
“I had several girls show up to the interest meeting I hosted in June, and then I hosted a minicamp toward the middle of August and five out of the seven girls said, ‘I would have wrestled, but I don’t want to wrestle boys,’” he said. “I said, ‘OK. This is why we’re doing this, so you have the opportunity to wrestle your peers.”
The Matsons are a wrestling family. Both of Makayla Matson’s older brothers wrestled at Niskayuna, and it was an argument between the two of them that gave her the spark to join the sport herself.
“My two brothers were arguing over who was the better wrestler,” she said. “I decided, ‘You know what? It’s winter season, I got nothing else going on,’ so I started in eighth grade at modified and I just kind of worked my way through.”
For Makayla Matson, now a junior, that meant going up against the boys — with difficult results.
“There was no one really at the lower weight classes,” she said, “so I just filled in on varsity against boys. I thought I was really bad. I got crushed. I got absolutely destroyed.”
She found some success at a girls’ tournament, and that was her springboard to go full-speed-ahead into the sport, even competing at USA Wrestling’s Junior and 16U Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota this past summer.
When Niskayuna and Schenectady announced their intentions to form a girls’ wrestling team — with her father, who’s become a huge advocate for the sport, as head coach — Makayla immediately embraced the hype and started recruiting.
“I know that there’s definitely a lot of little girls that want to compete and their parents say ‘No, that’s full of boys and they’re stinky and gross,’” she said. “It really just gives the opportunity for girls to be able to wrestle and have fun without having to be around the boys.”
The team began practicing this past Monday with approximately 20 girls, including seven of them from Schenectady. Bringing those girls to practice was Alanie Genter, a traveling physical education teacher in the Schenectady City School District who is serving as an assistant coach.
Genter’s wrestling experience? None, save for watching her younger brother Jason compete in high school at Saratoga Springs.
But, like so many involved in pushing the sport forward, Genter’s embraced a “gung-ho” attitude.
“My mentor had mentioned it to me over the summer and he asked if this would be something I would be interested in,” Genter said. “He really wanted to get our Schenectady girls into something new and build a girls’ program.
“I was like, absolutely, because I’m all for girl power and equality, and if I could get some of my students and girls into wrestling, I’m like, ‘Heck yeah.’”
Schenectady boys’ wrestling coach Chad Languish is thrilled to see the emerging sport progressing.
“It’s something that I hope grows the sport,” said Languish, who is also the assistant coordinator for the Section II wrestling committee, “and gives these girls the opportunity to do something that maybe they’ve always wanted to do, but just weren’t quite comfortable doing.”
And as for Singh, finally taking her first steps onto the mat?
She’s learned some very quick lessons.
“You don’t know how hard it is,” she said, “until you actually try it.”
GREAT COOPERATION LEADS TO ADIRONDACK UNITED
As Jeff Willis, the head coach of the new Adirondack United girls’ hockey team said, these days it can be difficult getting two people to agree on the simplest thing.
So to get six schools’ athletic directors, booster clubs and boards of education to agree on the best way forward to forming a combined girls’ high school ice hockey program – the first of its kind in the Capital Region – is an impressive feat.
Adirondack United is a team combined from girls in the Glens Falls, South Glens Falls, Queensbury, Hudson Falls, Saratoga Springs and Corinth school districts. The initial talks to form such a team began before the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic started to ebb, the conversations restarted.
“We’ve had a lot of success in the North Country with girls’ club programs such as the Northstars, and others,” Willis said. “And there had been a bunch of girls trying to compete on boys’ teams and being slightly successful, on the Adirondack Rivermen, Queensbury Spartans, Saratoga Springs.”
Tryouts for the team started last Monday, but according to Saratoga Springs athletic director Nick McPartland, preliminary interest indicated the team could expect to have a roster in the mid-20s.
The team is composed of one more school than the GMSVS Storm, made up of boys’ hockey players from Guilderland, Mohonasen, Scotia-Glenville, Voorheesville and Schalmont. That raised an eyebrow at the state level, according to Willis, but was approved. In the past, the state has given approval to larger combined girls’ hockey teams, notably the East Green Waves, of Section I, which was composed of 13 schools during its first season in 2021.
Shane Jones, the athletic director at Glens Falls, said forming Adirondack United speaks to the strength of girls’ sports in general, but particularly hockey.
“I grew up in the [Adirondack Youth Hockey] area with the Northstars,” Jones said. “I really think it’s a long time coming. To be able to have this opportunity now, I think it’s awesome.”
Being the only Section II team, United will have above-average travel distances. It has road games scheduled at Skaneateles, Saranac Lake, Malone, Potsdam, Clinton, Oswego, Beekmantown, Canton and Massena. It will practice and play its home games at the Glens Falls Recreation Center.
“We filled the schedule more easily than I anticipated,” McPartland said. “We’re going to have some travel, but I think there’s a lot of anticipation, also from schools that we’re playing in nearby sections that see us as a closer opponent than they may have been looking at.”
There will obviously be more expense for Adirondack United, but Willis and McPartland said each school is contributing something.
“Whether it’s travel or jerseys or referees’ fees; ancillary things like pucks, tape, other supplies, we’re all doing something. And we’ve done it fairly so that a school that’s probably only sending us a couple of players isn’t paying for something out of proportion,” Willis said.
The hope is that Adirondack United has such success – not just in terms of wins and losses – that it will spur other Capital Region schools to form teams. Those involved with Adirondack United said that if it happens, it would most likely come from the larger Suburban Council schools.
“At the end of the day, we really just want to make sure it’s a positive experience,” Jones said, “and I think it will be.”
STEPS INTO THE FUTURE
This winter, NYSPHSAA will host its first sanctioned wrestling tournament for girls. The event is set to be held Jan. 27 at SRC Arena in Syracuse, the day before the boys’ state dual meet championships at the same venue.
That event is already scheduled to be held in the 2023-24 season as well, and it’s the first major step toward eventually having a full state tournament for girls’ wrestling, something that’s already sponsored in 36 other states.
“Ultimately,” Jeremy Matson said, “it would be nice to be at the MVP Arena [in Albany, the site of the boys’ individual state championships]. We’ll take what we can get.”
That’s one goal, but Makayla Matson is looking beyond her own success. Her favorite days on the Nisakyuna boys’ wrestling team weren’t the individual tournaments, they were the dramatic, team-focused dual meets.
There’s the potential to have some of those this season — if teams can match up enough weight classes to avoid a meet filled with forfeits — but she wants to be part of those team victories on a regular basis.
“What I miss from the boys’ team is dual meets,” Makayla Matson said. “I love dual meets, I love team scores.
“It’s an individual sport, but having a dual meet really brings the team together. It’s not one person in a weight class, it’s all these people representing a school together and win or lose, you went out there.”
Daily Gazette sportswriter Stan Hudy contributed to this report.