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LI’s girl wrestlers enjoy the competition despite no high school teams

Team Alpha Girls Wrestling Club's Coach, Amber Atkins

Team Alpha Girls Wrestling Club's Coach, Amber Atkins (top), Katie Moore (bottom), during a team workout at East Islip High School, East Islip Terrace, New York, on Wednesday Jan. 25, 2017. Credit: Richard T. Slattery

Katie Moore had just finished her wrestling match — notching her first-ever varsity-level victory in the boys high school sport. So the Riverhead High School freshman celebrated by grabbing all her things and traveling 33 miles to grapple some more, with the Team Alpha Girls Wrestling Club at East Islip High School.

Instead of being in a room filled with boys in singlets, as she was during the high school meet, she was in a room filled with girls. Some were her age and some, such as 7-year-old Makenna Corcoran, were just beginning their journey into girls competitive wrestling.

And between them all was Ken Corcoran, Makenna’s dad, barking out tips and instructions to the nearly 20 girls on the mats. Ken has a shaved head, a bushy beard and he’s built like a WWE wrestler; the type on his shirt was hot pink.

“We are Alpha,” it read. “We Can. We Do. We Will.” Then, the hashtag: #girlsdowrestle.

Girls certainly do.

“This sport makes you feel like you’re home,” said Yafreycy Taveras, a member of the Copiague Female Wrestling Club. “It makes you feel like you’re family. With other sports, you don’t feel like that. It’s just a feeling that you get from the room and the other people around you.”

Girls wrestling boys at the high school level is hardly a new development — Alpha coach Amber Atkins did it up to her high school graduation in 2010, as did Copiague founder Empress Staubitz, who wrestled around the same time — but the growing popularity of women’s wrestling has spearheaded a local movement all its own. The sport is coming off its first American Olympic gold medalist, Helen Maroulis, and the interest in all-girls wrestling can be seen in gyms today. Since 1994, the number of girls who wrestle in high school has grown from 804 to 13,900, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, and that growth is reflected in Long Island’s clubs.

“It’s gigantic and it’s awesome,” Atkins said. “It’s growing and I think it will keep growing.”

Which is why Corcoran says it is essential that girls have a place where they can hone their craft and compete with each other. Clubs like Alpha not only provide that opportunity, they incentivize it. Girls on club teams get to travel to tournaments to wrestle other girls and they have the chance to make the USA Wrestling national team.

In Copiague, it’s literally a family affair. Brothers, sisters and cousins all descend on the wrestling room there to practice. Though girls and members of the boys high school teams train separately, boys sometimes stick around to support the girls club. “We train them just like we train the guys,” said Anthony Cipriano, who coaches both Copiague Female and the high school varsity team. “They practice as hard as the guys practice — actually, some of them are probably practicing harder than some of my guys.”

The club, also coached by Cipriano’s daughter, Staubitz, includes junior Claudia Zieba, who is using wrestling to prepare herself for the United States Naval Academy. Kathy Rosado, a Copiague High School junior, took up wrestling after being encouraged by her little sister, Stacey, 12, who is vying for a spot on the Copiague middle school boys team. A number of their male family members also wrestle.

And then there’s Lisauri Almanzar, who wrestles with the Amityville High School boys team and made her way to the sport via her love of Brazilian Jiujitsu.

“I love conditioning,” said Almanzar, who wrestles in the boys’ 99-pound weight class (girls’ tournaments use a looser weight system). “I remember the first week I started, I was surprised. The conditioning I did before was so different. . . . Wrestling for the first week, I was dying. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t keep up. But then after a week, it was like, I got this.”

Almanzar, who wrestles at both the varsity and junior varsity levels, said she used to go to the wrestling room in middle school to watch the boys compete, “but I didn’t have the confidence, or someone else’s influence saying, ‘Oh, you should do it.’ ”

Jiujitsu, she said, gave her the push she needed, while Copiague Female Wrestling just gives her another family to belong to. “I just love [wrestling],” she said.

There are still challenges. Competing with a club team means sacrifice, because tournaments or USA Wrestling events involve out-of-state travel, but girls who want to wrestle rarely have another option. There is no girls interscholastic wrestling on Long Island, so those who want to go that route must wrestle boys. Girl wrestlers who competed in middle school, such as Moore and fellow Alpha member Alexa Pereira, also had to deal with a slew of forfeit victories when boys refused to wrestle a girl.

“No one really discouraged me from wrestling boys, but then when I got to seventh grade, it was like, forfeit, forfeit, forfeit, because none of the boys wanted to wrestle me,” Moore said. “They knew I would beat them and they didn’t want to be embarrassed.”

That’s why, Staubitz said, it’s imperative to work toward getting recognized as a high school sport, as it is in five states. Girls wrestling is a ways away — generally, you need at least six districts involved in the sport, and then it needs to go up to the state athletic association, said Don Webster, executive director for Section XI, which governs interscholastic sports for Suffolk public schools. After that, it goes back to the section to undergo a vote from individual conferences; representatives from that vote then take it to the athletic council, which is also made up of elected Board of Education officials, for a final ruling.

But Staubitz said it was worth it. Alpha and Copiague mostly get by with fundraising, so money wouldn’t be an issue, she said, and both Staubitz and Corcoran said there has been significant support from the larger wrestling community.

“I’d like to see [it] recognized so that females can have the same opportunities as guy wrestlers to go to college and the Olympics,” Staubitz said. It “opens more doors to them further on in life. If females had their own separate teams, there would be thousands of more female wrestlers in the state. As of now, the only opportunity Long Island female wrestlers have is to wrestle on guys’ teams, and most of the girls are intimidated to wrestle guys.”

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