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Girl Power: Female foursome in PAC proving wrestling isn’t just for the boys

They’re described by such terms as “pioneers” and “trailblazers.”

Some people consider them “inspirations.” Others may consider them a “novelty.”

But, first and foremost, they’re high-school girls looking to establish their place in a sport that’s been almost exclusively a domain of manhood since the ancient Greeks competed in it at their Olympic games.

Pottstown’s team has three girls who are a presence on the varsity roster: Zoe Earle, Julianna Figueroa and Mia Bumbarger. Zoe and Julianna, both sophomores, wrestle at the lower end of the weight scale; and Mia is a freshman competing at 145.

Up in Boyertown, Samantha Reitnour continues to take her place in the Bear program as the lone representative of her gender. A junior in the 113-pound category, she’s in her third season at the high-school level after two years at Boyertown Middle School-West.

Their passion for the sport is a constant for the foursome.

“It’s a ‘you can’t beat me up’ kind of thing,” Figueroa said. “Everything is you. It’s all on you.”

“A lot of people want to know how I got into it,” Reitnour added. “They’re pretty accepting. It’s growing among women.”

Samantha Reitnour, standing right, competes on the Boyertown wrestling team. (Mike Leister – pa-wrestling.com)

Their middle-school wrestling programs were the starting spot for the wrestlers. Reitnour was in the situation of having Boyertown’s current high-school head coach, Dave Jones, running the team at Boyertown Middle School-West when she was there, Mia, in turn, found encouragement from both her female teammates and older brother Ray, a heavyweight competitor who graduated in 2017.

“The other two got me started,” she recalled.

Figueroa has the most individual success of the four girls this winter. She boasts a 7-3 record to date, with a particularly inspiring effort in the Dec. 19 “Border Battle at Sunnybrook” against Pottsgrove, scoring a pin at 120.

“In seventh grade, I started wrestling at Pottsgrove,” Julianna said.” So that was pretty cool, showing what I can do.”

Figueroa has effectively surpassed her five-win total from the 2017-18 season.

“It’s pretty cool,” she said. “Last year, I got pinned. This year, I’m able to do something.”

Earle, with two wins in the current season, has also seen more action than her freshman campaign. She also has a pin to her credit, scoring it in Pottstown’s Octorara Duals match with Schuylkill Valley.

“I’m focusing on speed and technique,” she said. “Other coaches see how hard you work, and they respect you for that.”

With only one bout at this point in the season, Bumbarger has other measuring sticks for determining her progression in the sport.

“In the practice room, if I’m in the bottom position and I get out, I feel I’ve accomplished something,” she said. “I haven’t reached my high point this year.”

The girls have effectively impressed the Pottstown coaching staff with their approach to the sport, attitude and work ethic.

“The girls are awesome. They’re model participants,” head coach Nick Wade said. “They’re on time for practices and accountable. I’d take 20 of them over anyone else.

“I hope they continue to grow Pottstown wrestling.”

The Pottstown wrestling team features three female wrestlers, from left, Julianna Figueroa, Mia Bumbarger and Zoe Earle. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

John Armato, a longtime coach in Pottstown’s high-school program, concurred.

“The girls are real pioneers,” Armato said. “They’re laying the foundation. They’re accepted as teammates by the other wrestlers.

“They made a believer out of me. They’re an example of how our culture has changed … the stereotypes and perception of what women are.”

Reitnour’s on-mat action thus far consists of one bout, against Tatyana Ortiz of Mariana Bracetti Academy during the Jan. 5 Parkland Duals. But she seeks out additional opportunities to improve her skill set, like working out at Princeton University with Chloe Ayres — the daughter of wrestling head coach Chris Ayres — last year.

“I’m concentrating more on technical and less on muscle,” she said. “Sticking to my roots rather than growing big.”

“Sam is a great team member, eager to learn and grow the sport,” Jones added.

The girls are united in their feelings about opponents — by choice or policy — forfeiting bouts to them. That’s particularly true of Figueroa, who’s had four successive outcomes like that since a Jan. 5 bout with Hatboro-Horsham’s Alanna Barberio at the Octorara Duals, who she beat by a 9-2 decision.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “You work all week, and then you get a forfeit.”

“It’s sometimes discouraging,” Earle added. “I see it as a missed opportunity to get out on the mat.”

“I don’t pay attention to gender out on the mat,” Bumbarger said.

A greater opportunity to wrestle is afforded girls in Pennsylvania through various off- and end-of-season tournaments. A state-level competition is conducted following the PIAA’s scholastic tourney in March, and another has been staged in Gettysburg in recent years.

The local girls have enjoyed significant results from their participation in those tournaments. Reitnour has scored a pair of Top Four finishes, Bumbarger was fourth at Gettysburg and second at states, and Figueroa won her weight class at states.

“It’s different than (wrestling) boys,” Bumbarger said. “Girls use different strategy. Girls have adapted to being outmuscled.”

Earle also had a medal showing in tournament competition.

“That was the first time I got anything for wrestling,” she noted. “It’s a confidence booster. I’m glad I didn’t give up.”

“They all plan to attend states in March,” Wade added.

The future growth of girls’ wrestling appears to be not so much a question of “if” as “when.”

Jones cited an example of the Lehigh Valley Wrestling Club’s clinic director, John Trenge, starting a girls program. He also noted Upper Dublin is pushing for girls wrestling as a club sport.

“Every year, there’s more talk about it,” he said. “It’s on the agenda for the PIAA to discuss it. Hopefully in the next three years, it will happen.”
The PIAA has to look no further than east of the Delaware River to find a setup for girls wrestling.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) will be sanctioning a girls post-season, which starts with regional competition Sunday, Feb. 17, at Red Bank Regional High School. A state championship for both boys and girls will then take place the weekend of March 1-2 in Atlantic City. The girls will be organized into 10 weight classes for the post-season tournaments.

“The message overall is, be open-minded,” Wade said. “Anybody can wrestle. I like to think they (girls) can lead the way. I haven’t found better examples of student-athletes.”

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