The metal door swung open and a line of wrestlers jogged onto the mat as Bay Shore coach Amber Atkins shouted instructions.
It was an ordinary practice for an extraordinary team.
This Bay Shore High School team is the first girls-only varsity wrestling team in New York State history.
“I want our girls to understand just how significant, how important it is, that this team is groundbreaking,” said Atkins, who wrestled for the Bay Shore boys team from 2007 to 2010. “We’re the start of something big. We’re trailblazers, and we want other schools to follow."
Before this year, girls who wanted to wrestle had to join the boys team and compete against boys. The Bay Shore girls team is competing exclusively against girls in individual tournaments since there are no other girls-only teams. It means they will have to do a little traveling. They compete this weekend in Queens and head to Scarsdale on Jan. 25. They have had three tournaments so far, in Copiague, Rockville Centre and Manhattan.
“When they announced it was a team for girls only, I was all in," Bay Shore senior Maria Quercia said. "It’s been a great experience. I’m getting in great shape, making friends and pushing myself to continue to improve. We’re learning how to stay positive, build self-confidence and never give up. I’m just so grateful for this opportunity.”
The team was open to any girls in Suffolk County who wanted to join. The 20-member team is comprised of 10 girls from Bay Shore High School and 10 from six other districts: Islip, Connetquot, East Islip, Westhampton Beach, Brentwood and Babylon.
“I tell them, 'Every day that I’m here with you girls is the best day of my life,' ” Atkins said.
Atkins, 27, who lives in Bay Shore and works as a dental hygienist, has been coaching girls wrestling for the past six years at the Alpha Club in East Islip. In addition to competing against boys in high school, she earned the 96-pound wrestling title as a sophomore in a girls national competition held at Northern Michigan University in 2008. She went on to play college soccer at SUNY New Paltz.
"She inspires us," Quercia said. "She's real."
Eighth-grader Alexandra Viera, who attends Oakdale-Bohemia Middle School in the Connetquot School District, had an 11-1 record as a middle school wrestler last year on the boys team.
“I’ve been wrestling since I’m 7 years old,” said the 14-year-old Viera. “I might look nice and I am a nice person but when I’m on the mat I will go hard on you. I don’t care if we’re friends. I’m out to win.”
Atkins credited the school's athletic director, Bob Panariello, for getting the girls program started.
"[He] had a vision and ran with it," Atkins said. "He afforded us an incredible opportunity to be the first to take the leap.”
Panariello said the goal is to add more teams on Long Island and eventually a state tournament. Panariello said 18 states already have girls state tournament wrestling competitions.
“We knew we could build a really solid foundation here in Bay Shore for the girls,” Panariello said. “Our district as a whole has this vision for girls wrestling from our Board of Education to our superintendent. And everyone is in agreement this is a great addition to what we offer our students."
Panariello said Atkins was the perfect choice to lead this pioneering team.
"She’s taken the reins with a fervor," Panariello said, "and we think Long Island will continue to grow the sport.”
Tom Combs, the executive director of Section XI, the governing body of high school sports in Suffolk County, said there are 81 girls wrestling in the county, including the 20 on the Bay Shore team.
“I think it’s awesome,” Combs said. “It’s a very positive step for our section in regard to girls sports.”
Nassau County has 20 girls wrestling, according to Carol Rosetto, the South Side High School athletic director and the Nassau girls wrestling chairwoman.
Dr. Robert Zayas, the executive director of the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association, said girls wrestling has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Zayas said there were 364 girls wrestling last year statewide, and that the number has increased to more than 400 this year, although the exact number won’t be known until after the season.
"Girls wrestling has picked up a tremendous amount of momentum," Zayas said. "I'm excited to see what the future brings. We're looking at other states and seeing the interest, the growth and the success of girls wrestling. And at some point we'll implement some of those ideas here in New York."
Zayas said girls wrestling will need to meet certain criteria before it can have a state tournament.
"We would need six sections in the state [there are 11] with four schools each hosting girls-only wrestling teams," he said. "Then we would create a state committee to oversee the sport and hold a state championship."