By JEREMY HINES
Jay County decided to take a little different approach to girls wrestling. The strategy is paying off.
Last year the Patriots had seven female wrestlers. They wanted to improve the numbers so they talked with some of the returning girls on the team and took note of what they said.
“We had a girl last year that was a really good athlete,” Jay County coach Eric Myers said. “She played soccer and softball. She did well in wrestling and placed at state. She looked pretty comfortable in the room with the guys.
“But, in trying to build the program, I asked if they were comfortable wrestling with the guys. She said she wasn’t super comfortable with it. I was pretty shocked by that. I thought, if we could find a way to have a girls practice away from the guys, we might increase our numbers. So, we did that – and it worked.”
This year Jay County has 13 girls on the team. They practice only against each other and compete only against other female wrestlers.
That has helped convince wrestlers like Mallory Winner to join the team. Winner is the little sister of 4-time state placer Mason Winner. She started wrestling when she was very young but sat out her eighth-grade year. Now she’s back and has been dominating every competition she’s been in so far.
Winner is the No. 2-ranked 160-pound girl in the state. She has already faced several other ranked opponents. She has beaten No. 3-ranked Grace Hiroms of Rochester four times already – winning 7-0, 6-0, 1-0 and by fall. She has also beaten No. 4 Emma Batten 11-2 and pinned No. 7 Sierra Zamorano.
“I didn’t ever really stop wrestling,” Winner said. “I just took a little bit of a break between my seventh and freshman year. I missed it, especially looking at a meet from the stands. I regretted not wrestling. When I came back, I was glad to be back. I get to wrestle with my friends. It brings me a lot of joy.”
Winner also became a big recruit for the team. She is a talented softball player and is friends with lots of athletes in the school. She has convinced other girls to come out for wrestling and is hoping to get even more out over the next few years.
“I’m always encouraging girls to come out,” Winner said. “I tell them that no matter if they win or lose, you’re always going to learn something. On good days and bad days, we’ll be there for them.”
When she’s trying to convince classmates to wrestle there’s always one question that comes up.
“They always ask if they have to wrestle boys,” Winner said.
Last year the Patriots placed fourth in state and second in regional. They are hoping to fair better in both this time around.
“I love coaching the girls,” Myers said. I think it’s great they have the opportunity to wrestle. In the sports offered by the IHSAA, wrestling is the most physical. It’s one of the sports where we say we’ll put guys and girls together. Now that we’re separating them, it’s more fair. I love that it gives girls more opportunities that they may not have had before. There are several very athletic girls that wouldn’t have been doing anything over the winter. It gives them something to keep them busy. Giving kids more opportunities to compete, be on a team and make friends is always a good thing.”
For Winner, who admits her first love is softball, she’s made great friendships through wrestling.
“Even if you don’t know the other teams, personally, the girls come up and talk to you,” Winner said. “You’re not afraid to be friends with opponents. Even when get done with a match, sometimes the opponents are giving you hugs and stuff. I think this is one of the reasons girls wrestling is growing very, very fast. Just this year our first tournament had around 115 girls, and in the last one there were over 200.”
Winner has a talented group of teammates surrounding her this season. Her drill partner is senior Lizzie Dollar. Dollar is the team’s 106-pounder. She’s ranked No. 6 right now in the weight class. She is a two-time state runner-up at 98 pounds and last year placed fourth.
“Lizzie always goes hard,” Winner said. “She doesn’t care about the difference in our weights. She goes out and gives me a great practice and competes.”
Senior Tricia Ison is ranked No. 4 at 170 pounds for the Patriots and teammate Mollie Hines is No. 9 at 182.
For Myers, he is enjoying learning the differences between coaching the girls and the guys. He is the head coach for the boys team as well.
“With girls, I discovered that they process things differently,” Myers said. “When you demonstrate a move for a guy, they seem to try that move super aggressively and miss the details. The girls, when you show them, they have all the details down but are not doing it quite as aggressively. That’s a subtle difference. The girls really have a great ability to listen.”
Earlier this season Jay County and Columbia City held what is believed to be the state’s first all-girl dual meet. Columbia City won the meet on criteria, after a 30-30 tie.