- Associated Press - Saturday, February 16, 2019

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (AP) - Samirah Price “learned moves without even knowing it,” rolling around on the living room floor with her four older brothers. She refined her technique watching American Olympians Jordan Burroughs and Cary Kolat on YouTube, trying to replicate what she saw.

Price joined the wrestling team at MacKinnon Middle School in Wharton when it launched last winter. She was far from the only girl interested in the new sport. In fact, Price said there were three times as many girls as boys. But the gender differences didn’t matter to her.

“I thought, ‘This is my shot,’” said Price, now a Dover freshman. “I’ll wrestle anyone you put in front of me. I don’t care if you’re male or female. I’ll dominate.”

Price is one of six Morris County girls who have entered the inaugural NJSIAA girls wrestling tournament, which commences with Regions on Sunday at Red Bank Regional.

Senior Hailey Budney and sophomore Sydney Petzinger will represent Parsippany. Price’s Dover teammate, freshman Yarelli Tapia, Randolph junior Felicia Chen, and Kinnelon senior Emily Mendoza are also scheduled to compete on Sunday.

The top three finishers in each weight class will advance to the final NJSIAA Tournament run concurrently with the boys’ event March 1 and 2 in Atlantic City.

New Jersey will be the 12th state, and first in the northeast, to have a state-sanctioned high school girls wrestling tournament.

“I was pretty scared, but after my first wrestling match, I thought, ‘I’ll get the hang of it,’” said Price, the only female competitor at the Morris County Tournament this winter.

“I think I have what it takes to go far my next three years. I have determination. I have power. I have strength. I don’t give up. I’m just there to put you down and show you you’re going to take me seriously. I love doing it.”

Though Petzinger has been wrestling since third grade, 90 percent of the time she has stepped onto the mat against boys.

When she was 12, the father of one of Sydney’s young opponents said, loud enough for her mother, Ronnie Petzinger, to hear, “Go show her why there’s no room for girls in this sport.”

Sydney Petzinger pinned the boy, won the title, and found out about the comment later.

She’s become accustomed to blending in, whether at the high school, the Parsippany-Troy Wrestling Club - where she wrestled until eighth grade - or Total Force Wrestling Club in Pine Brook. Wearing the same singlet and a cover over her brown hair, Petzinger looks just like her male teammates do.

“People who think it’s bad losing to a girl, they’re not thinking the right way,” said Petzinger, who hopes to win the inaugural NJSIAA title at 100 pounds, the lightest weight class.

“A wrestler is a wrestler whether they’re a boy or a girl. They should think, ‘I just lost to a good wrestler.’ I don’t like when people are sexist about that.”

Hackettstown junior Mia Balella has yet to wrestle anyone but girls, and her father, West Morris assistant wrestling coach Jim Balella, is totally OK with that. Mia and her younger sisters, Gianna and Ava, grew up around wrestling - and volleyball, which her father has also coached for about 20 years. When the girls-only program launched, Mia - who weighs all of 93 pounds, far less than the boys’ lightweight limit of 106 or the girls’ 100 - talked to her parents about signing up.

Mia Balella and her Hackettstown teammate Shannon Gulick are both scheduled to go to Regions on Sunday. Sounding more like a proud father than coach, Jim Balella recalled Mia lost her first match at the Bloomfield Tournament on Dec. 29, but has gone undefeated since.

“I was always against it, because of the whole boys wrestling girls competition thing. But when we found out they’re running their own tournaments, I was all for it,” said Jim Balella, who wrestled at Hackettstown - as did his cousin, Katie Hutton.

“She’s a tough kid. She works very hard. It’s the start of something that’s going to take off pretty big in the state, which is exciting to see. . It’s cool to see the very beginning of it. “

There were female high school wrestlers in New Jersey as far back as the 1980s. Hopatcong’s Kim Lynch and Mary Ann Betlow were featured in the Daily Record in 1984. Kim Salma of Fair Lawn was the first female wrestler to place in a New Jersey district tournament, and the first to win a match at regions in 2003.

“We treat them just like any other athlete,” said Mike Suk, who has coached at Randolph for more than 20 years.

“Anyone who wants to come out, has the desire to become better, has a passion for it, we respect that. . Felicia (Chen) got to wrestle every time the JV got to wrestle. We take our JV kids to Sunday tournaments every weekend, and we run jamborees on Mondays where we invite four to 10 schools to come bring their JV kids. . They’re hard workers. They take it seriously. I have a lot of respect for their work ethic.”

Girls wrestling grew exponentially after the NJSIAA Executive Committee voted unanimously in October to sanction the sport.

There were 15 Morris County girls, plus full teams at High Point, Kittatinny and Newton, among more than 450 female wrestlers from New Jersey listed on TrackWrestling this winter.

In December, Jackson defeated Manalapan in the first all-girls wrestling dual match in New Jersey.

More than 300 female wrestlers have entered Regions on Sunday.

Last winter, only 129 of the more than 16,500 female wrestlers in United States high schools were in New Jersey, according to the most recent National Federation of State High School Associations survey.

By contrast, New Jersey boys’ wrestling has declined slightly, from 9,788 participants in 2009-10 to 8,999 last winter.

“It’s fun, but it’s weird because there’s not that many girls into it,” said Chen, who also played tackle and safety on Randolph Middle School’s football team.

“It’s like setting things up for future girls. It’s quote-unquote seen as a guys’ sport, even though it’s a coed sport. But a girl can handle it too. I’m showing other girls not to be scared to do something that’s seen as manly.”

Chen estimated of her 36 matches this winter, four of them were against girls. She lost to all the boys, grousing about genetic differences and upper-body strength - but beat three of the girls.

“I think girl wrestlers work harder than boy wrestlers do, because they have to constantly prove they deserve to be here,” Price said. “We get to show we belong in the sport too, and we have just as much pride as the boys. . We have to go out there in the all-girls tournament and show them we’re great female wrestlers. We’re not out there to play around. We’re out there to dominate and get those pins.”





Information from: Daily Record (Parsippany, N.J.), http://www.dailyrecord.com

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