WIND OF CHANGE: High School wrestling’s shift for female equality in NC

Bandys' freshman wrestler Bryce Kirkland battling Newton-Conover's Nathan Vang in the 106-pound class on Jan. 28 for the Trojans' 'Senior Night.' (O-N-E file photo by Michelle Thompson)Maiden High freshman wrestler Magnolia Vang (113-pound) competing during the 2019-20 season. (Photo Special to the O-N-E)Maiden High freshman wrestler Miranda Valerio (113-pound) collecting one of her eight victories during the 2019-20 season. (Photo Special to the O-N-E)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

Times are changing and the tide is turning in equality for women in sports. So, what’s next?

In the past few years, there has been a wind of change for females in amateur wrestling across the United States and North Carolina is finally following this national trend.

Uwharrie Charter High junior Heaven Fitch proved just what women can do in this sport as she became the first female wrestler in North Carolina history to win an individual state championship (1A) against men in the NCHSAA high school wrestling state championships on Feb. 23.

This victory for Fitch leaves the sport up for grabs in terms of the heights females can go. Fitch was also named the 2020 1A Most Outstanding Wrestler, after having placed fourth in her first individual state championships in 2019 (the first-ever female to compete in this NC tournament).

In 2019, North Carolina began this transition of female excellence as it finally instituted a women’s high school wrestling invitational that saw promise. A task force was also created in 2019 with the hopes of making female wrestling a separate entity in high school athletics.

Presently constructed, high school wrestling only has female leagues in 16 of the 50 U.S states: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Colorado, California, Illinois, Hawaii, Missouri, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and the State of Washington.

During the 2019-20 season, competitors from Catawba County participated in the 2nd Annual North Carolina Women’s Wrestling Invitational from Feb. 7-8 at the Carolina Courts in Concord, NC.

There were 86 schools with individuals competing and 14 weight classes in which they competed in this second-annual event. Of those participating, one hailed from Bandys High School while one came from Newton-Conover High School.

Trojans’ freshman Bryce Kirkland competed in this invitational, along with Red Devils’ freshman Savannah Brown.

Brown (2-7) was defeated in the first-round of the invitational championships by Richlands’ Shelyn Williams (10-5) via a 2:35 pinfall. She had an opportunity to bounce back in the first-round of the consolations, but she lost to Swain County’s Erika Wachacha (7-6) via forfeit.

Kirkland (8-12) battled her opponents in the 106 A weight class, going up against Polk County’s Tori Strickland (27-19) in the first-round of the invitational, where she won via a 3-2 decision. Next up was the quarterfinal match-up with South Lenoir’s Gracie Elliott (26-13) in which Kirkland dropped this bout via pinfall in 19 seconds.

Kirkland didn’t waver, though, as she came back in the first-round of the consolation rounds to defeat Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy’s Abigail Waters (8-20) via a 2:39 fall.

Unfortunately, this momentum didn’t last as she finally saw her first season with the Trojans come to an end via a 16-6 major decision loss to NC School of Math and Science’s Madeline Smith in the third-round of the consolations.

Although she fell in this women’s tournament, Kirkland sees a great deal of progression for the sport and the diversity it will entail in the foreseeable future.

“My hopes for the future of female wrestling are very high,” she said. “I would love to see a league for just girls; me and my high school coach (Justin Adams) have even talked about trying to recruit more girls and hopefully start a girls team for the high school. I pray that female wrestling continues to grow as it has for the past several years.

“(As far as the invitational), being able to compete was an absolute pleasure. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to be around so many fellow female wrestlers. I love seeing all of us come together, one thing especially because it is commonly done by men. I was also incredibly grateful for my teammates that showed up just to support me.”

In terms of her first appearance on the Trojans this season, Kirkland said things were a bit awkward at first as she had expected.

“The more I was around them they warmed up to me and they really started to create some relationships with me,” she said. “Some of my favorite memories were definitely when I won but I also loved the bus rides, getting to spend that time with my team was just such a great experience they are all such great people to be around.”

Kirkland said her interest in wrestling began when she was younger because of her family:

“Many of my friends wrestle, as well as my brother,” she said. “When I was little, I admired wrestling; just watching my brother piqued my interest, but most of all, my parents because they supported me from the very beginning no matter what I wanted to do.

“ I have obtained many things from wrestling some of which being: determination, commitment, and the ability to work hard for what I want. I hope to improve my skills by continuing to practice even in the off season, wrestling freestyle, possibly weight training, and some personal practices with my brother and my dad.”

Her rival and Catawba County counterpart wrestling team - the Maiden Blue Devils - also had two female members this season: freshmen Magnolia Vang and Miranda Valerio.

Although the two didn’t have too many matches during the 2019-20 campaign, they also have hopes for more progression for females in the near future.

Valerio and Vang both competed in the 113-pound weight class with Valerio finishing 8-10 and Vang unfortunately losing all six of her bouts.

“My experience wrestling with Maiden High School was fun (and) enjoyable,” said Valerio. “I loved that it made me stay in shape and that we worked hard. My favorite thing is when we (would) go to far places to wrestle like when we went to Watauga High School...I (also) like to wrestle in the tournaments. I think it gives you an opportunity to get better, every match you learn from your mistakes in just one day.”

Valerio said that the future of female wrestling can be an empowerment for the women. She said that girls can come out and show off against the guys by beating them and proving they’re just as strong as they are. She feels it can be a tool to relieve stress and help girls become stronger women.

Valerio also said that she definitely sees the potential of a future for a female wrestling league in North Carolina. She said she went to the 2nd Annual Women’s Wrestling Invitational this season and saw all of the girls competing in the different weight classes. She said that a separate league is possible if girls were coming out to try and not being scared to.

She also mentioned what led her to pursue wrestling:

“I was a manager for Newton-Conover Middle School wrestling 7th grade year, and I liked how aggressive they are and how intense they were,” she said. “I wanted to be in a sport that would keep me in shape, and I liked the coaching (there) and how he pushed you to become better. So, I wrestled a little my 8th grade year and I won one match. I wanted to come back my 9th grade year and work really hard to strive to win more matches and get better at the sport I really like to do.”

She said what she’s taken away so far from her experience is that teammates don’t care that you’re a girl as they support you no matter what. Valerio’s also learned that no matter the outcome - win or lose - they will be happy with you as long as you give it your all.

“I hope to improve my skill level, get stronger, and win more matches and even be able to go to regionals,” said Valerio.

As for Vang, she described her time with Maiden wrestling as a special thing.

“I had to go through some moments, even the toughest ones, if I was passionate about what I was doing,” she said. “There isn’t really one fond moment I have because this was my first year and I was still learning, but if I had to choose then maybe (it would be) during the Christmas Classic Tournament when the team won first (place).”

Prior to her time on the mat this past season, Vang had never competed in wrestling or any sports for that matter. One of her best friends actually convinced her to take the chance. Her friend had wrestled in middle school, but Vang said she wasn’t allowed, at the time, to participate in sports or school activities.

Vang said as the two were heading into high school, her best friend moved away and that was the time she was convinced to go for it.

“I had some hard time deciding if I really should do it or not,” she said. “Because without her, I would’ve been out of place as I have never wrestled or done sports in general. At the end, I did it and I don’t regret it...I hope to improve myself in the future by asking for more advice from those who know what they’re doing especially since I started as a freshman. Also, (I need) to do extra lifting or something more than what I did at home this past season (to get better).

“My thoughts about (the) future of girls’ wrestling in North Carolina and in the USA is ‘You can do it’ because if you are down to do it, put your heart and time into it. I can’t answer for sure but everything starts with something, even if it’s a little. That being said, girls having their own league (in) wrestling is growing. There are some girls I personally know that are really into wrestling right now. So, as (I) said, there isn’t a thing wrong with girls wrestling.”

*Story published in the O-N-E's Profile edition on Tuesday, March 31.*