The State High girls wrestling team stands together at a tournament.
The State High girls’ wrestling team stands together at a tournament.
Elisa Lackey

Girls’ Wrestling Steps Onto the Mat

On May 17, 2023, girls’ wrestling was officially sanctioned as a PIAA sport. Pennsylvania was the 38th state to do this, and 181 schools throughout the state currently have teams. State College quickly jumped on the bandwagon, creating the first girls’ wrestling team in school history. Although they only began practice this winter, the team is moving full speed ahead through a historic season. 

The team currently has 12 members, 6 middle school and 6 high school, all who are experiencing many firsts together. For 10 of the 12, it is their first time even stepping on a mat. 

Coach Eshia Willingham is the head coach of the team. For her, becoming a coach was about more than competing. A major motivation was the lessons that can be learned from the sport.

“I became a coach because I enjoy being a leader and mentor for young girls. I did not have women in my life growing up that I could look to for inspiration or to be a good positive role model,” Willingham said, “This was an opportunity for me to be that encouragement, support and inspiration for young girls and young women. If I have any chance to push them and help them be their best self in all aspects of life then that is what I am going to do.” 

Coach Elisa Lackey is an assistant coach of the team. Although she was never able to compete, wrestling has been a major component of her life since childhood, as her father and brother were involved in it. Her brother, Nathan Galloway, was a three-time state champion for State College. Initially, she never thought of wrestling as a possibility for her four daughters. The sanctioning of girls’ wrestling has allowed her to share her love for the sport with them. 

“State College has been known for their wrestling in the past. With the boys team, obviously, we’ve got three really great guy wrestlers right now on the team,” Lackey said,  “Those opportunities are there for the girls now. It’s an opportunity I never got, but if the opportunity would have been there for me, I would have been the first one to sign up.”

To initially create interest, the team held nights where anyone could try their luck at the basics. From there, they moved on to pre-season practices where athletes decided if they wanted to continue wrestling. A majority of the girls who tried it ended up joining and have been improving ever since. 

Senior Kendall Thomas is one of the wrestlers who is completely new to the sport. Thomas recently won her first match. She joined wrestling because she did jiu-jitsu in the past, and thought she could use knowledge from that and apply it to wrestling. 

Thomas did face some doubts when first beginning, but has quickly picked up the sport. “I was a little bit scared that I wouldn’t pick up on the rules or pick up on the way things were fast enough, especially for a competition. I feel like that’s going well for me. But also I think competitively, I’d say I’m doing pretty well. I mean, I only had my first competition a few weeks ago, and it went surprisingly well. So I’m hoping the upcoming ones go just as well,” Thomas said. 

Many of the wrestlers have experienced a similar progression. Lackey explained the success that the team has experienced within the first few competitions. “The other kind of cool thing that we’ve got to witness are some girls who just started getting their first win, which is a huge deal. In wrestling, you don’t generally see wins when you’re brand new. So it’s really cool to see a couple of those girls step out there and get their hand raised at the end of the match,” Lackey said. 

Aside from the physical aspects, the mental development the team is going through plays a significant part. Lackey detailed the benefits wrestling offers. “Wrestling teaches you how to be gritty and kind of push beyond the kind of mental wall that a lot of people run into. And it helps you out in not only athletics, but also in your schoolwork and your personal life. There’s a lot of things that wrestling can teach you, if you just let it,” Lackey said. 

Willingham echoed this sentiment. “I can say with certainty that wrestling has built their confidence and tremendously improved their lifestyles and work ethic.”

Although girl’s wrestling continues to grow, a large number of people still have misconceptions about it. Wrestling is traditionally known as a sport only for men. This stigma can lead to uncertainty when it comes to trying it out. The team urges people to look past the stereotypes.

“I have girls that came in, like I said, never have ever stepped on a mat before and they realize that they’re not just a couch potato,” Lackey said, “That’s one thing that I had one of my athletes say, ‘Oh, I’m just a couch potato. I’ve never done anything like this in my life’. And she realized that she can do all of these things that look so hard on the outside looking in.” 

Lackey went on to say, “I would love for girls to know that you’re strong and that you can be doing wrestling and still be feminine. You can just go out there and use your strength and your speed, and all of the things that girls aren’t necessarily told that they can do.”

Throughout their first season, the girl’s wrestlers of State High have a goal to inspire young girls to push past their comfort zones. Thomas detailed the impact of the team. “I feel like there’s so many sports out there that are deemed men’s sports. And I feel like really, anyone can do anything, so I think it’s super important that there’s representation out there of women doing this male dominated sport, so that other women who are interested in it also feel inspired to do it,” Thomas said. 

The main message the team wants to send is one of opportunity. Girls wrestling has also begun to gain momentum on the collegiate level, with Division I, II, and III schools offering scholarships as they build their programs. 

Willingham urged girls to take advantage of those opportunities despite any hesitations. “If there are girls out there, not just State College Area but anywhere who have the slightest interest in wrestling, they should give it a try. They should bring their friends with them to try it so they can support one another and make it a more fun and meaningful experience. It is hard work but the rewards you gain far outweigh any of the downsides,” Willingham said. 

The team currently has four more tournaments this season. For information on where you can watch them in action next, follow their Instagram: @statecollegegirlswrestling.

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