Middle school wrestling program sees growth, including interest among girls

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Members of the middle school wrestling team included (front, left to right) manager Amara Buchheit, Chylie Feurerhelm, Elias Hatt, Konner Barat-Klimesh, Holden Mathis, Kole Pape, Bryce Radloff, Dalton Krause, manager Trista Eggers; (middle) manager Savannah Schaller, Karter Decker, Austin Schlee, Noah Bond, Tyler Zuercher, Taylor Herzmann, Landon Johnson, Alek Roys, manager Franci Mezera; (back) coach Brent Pape, Kadence Pape, Emily Hendrickson-Troester, Tristen Koehn, Mason Overton, Michael Knickerbocker, Tyler Slaughter and coach Travis Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Blaker Photography)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Twenty MFL MarMac seventh and eighth graders went out for middle school wrestling this year, the most participants the program has seen in five or six years, estimated head coach Brent Pape.

Of those 20 wrestlers, 13 amassed 10 wins or more, and 14 had winning records.

“In the middle school season, you’re lucky if you get 20 matches,” said Pape, which makes the results even more remarkable. “We had a really good year.”

But for the wrestlers, a season means more than just wins and losses. It’s an opportunity to gain key life skills, while also trying something new.

At the middle school level, MFL MarMac offers a split season for winter sports. Wrestling runs from mid-October to mid-December, and basketball follows that, allowing students to participate in both sports if they would like.

Pape, who teaches at the middle school, said he often talks with students about the benefits of wrestling and encourages them to come and try it out. While some have been wrestling since they were little, nine team members had less than one year of experience.

Having less experience doesn’t hinder their development or success, Pape stressed.

“We do basic warm-ups every night,” he said, focusing on things like stances, take downs, escapes and how to hand fight. “Then there’s 20 to 30 minutes of new technique. That repetition catches some of those kids up.”

Plus, he added, “the kids we have are like sponges. They listen and want to learn. They’re coachable and hard working and kind of gritty, which is something you need to have with this sport.”

At this age, Pape said there’s also less focus on weight. Kids are instead given rankings, which take into account their size and experience level. Coaches use those rankings to put wrestlers on an even playing field and create the best match-ups possible.

“We make sure, if you’re going to have an undefeated season, that you earned it,” he explained. “I find matches that will push them.”

This year, one wrestler went undefeated—just the fifth in the past 20 years.

Of the skills kids learn through wrestling, Pape said perseverance and resilience are among the most important.

“You may be tired, but you have to continue to push forward,” he remarked.

Students also become more disciplined, gaining respect for their coaches, fellow athletes and the equipment they use. 

“You learn how to take care of your body, how to be a good teammate, how to take a loss and be OK with it,” Pape said. 

Wrestlers gain focus, as well, a trait Pape said was honed by the coaches’ decision to collect all cell phones before each meet. Kids were forced to set their sights on the matches at hand rather than texting friends or perusing social media.

“They also learn about setting goals,” Pape continued, “what they want to get out of wrestling.”

These benefits aren’t just exclusive to male wrestlers. Pape said he’s seen a growing female interest in the sport. 

Across the country, women’s programs are popping up at the youth, high school and collegiate levels.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, around 15,000 high school girls wrestled nationwide last year—up 10,000 participants from a decade prior.

“The U.S. also has a strong team, which has helped,” Pape said. “It’s become more accepted.”

A wrestling hotbed, Iowa has been no different.

“There’s been such a growth in the state where you almost have to have a separate [state] tournament [for girls],” Pape added.

At the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) level, there is, and it drew over 200 participants this past year.

Pape said MFL MarMac currently has three girls wrestling in the youth program, while three more are on the middle school team.

His daughter, Kadence, joined the middle school team last year.

“She grew up around the sport,” Pape said. “I coach and her brothers wrestle.”

Kadence was also inspired by Felicity Taylor, a former high school conference champion at South Winneshiek, who took first place at the junior women’s freestyle national championships over the summer.

This year, Kadence was joined by two more girls: Emily Hendrickson-Troester, following a family wrestling tradition, and Chylie Feuerhelm, whose sister Chelbe was a recent MFL MarMac grad who wrestled for the high school team a few years ago.

Pape said Chylie originally planned to be one of the team’s managers, but a few practices in decided she’d rather be on the mat than watching from the sidelines.

“All the girls’ families are supportive,” he shared. “And the fan base is supportive. They like to see [the girls] do well.”

The three, he explained, want to be treated like any other wrestler.

“They know what they signed up for. They chose to be out here,” Pape said. “You have to treat them like any other opponent.”

“They’re competing and training just as hard,” he added. “Sometimes, they have to train harder.”

Pape hopes the girls’ participation and success will draw others to the sport.

“It makes it more socially acceptable,” he shared. “If other girls are interested, they should give it a shot, make the leap. Middle school is a perfect time to try it.”

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