Thursday, March 23, 2023

Female wrestlers break down barriers

Near the top of the Flower Mound High School girls wrestling team’s Facebook page is a post of a newspaper clipping from December 27, 1996. The headline reads, “Get those girls off the mat.” You don’t have to read the article in its entirety to know from the headline that it clearly was a sign of the times in the late 90s. People weren’t in love with the idea of their girls wrestling, which because of low numbers, occasionally involved them lining up against boys.

Tiffany Mangini, a former wrestler now in her sixth year as the Lady Jaguars’ wrestling coach, was still very young while this was going on. But by the time she was graduating from Southlake Carroll in 2006, not much had changed.

“When I wrestled, there weren’t a lot of girls in my weight class. So, I had to enter the boys and girls tournaments just to get matches in,” Mangini said. “There were two types of guys — the ones who didn’t know what to do because they were wrestling a girl and the ones whose goal it was to make you quit or bloody you up so you didn’t come back.

“When you lost to a guy, there wasn’t any sympathy. When the guy lost, people would say, ‘That poor guy.’”

Girls wrestling is far more commonplace today, with high schools in North Texas popping up with their own programs practically every year. That includes Lewisville ISD, which has a separate program for each of its five high schools.

Flower Mound started its program during the 2016-17 school year. Marcus is in its third year. There are also plenty of highly decorated college programs across the nation — meaning there’s a future in the sport for girls who have loftier aspirations.

Girls are learning all the same locks, throws, and counters. They’re bigger, stronger, and faster. They go through the same grueling workouts — and they’re no strangers to winning on a big stage as a UIL-sanctioned sport.

The perception is changing for the better. All that’s left for Mangini and other LISD coaches — including new Marcus girls coach Brittany Marshall — is to continue making their mark in a sport that’s clearly not just for guys.

“We are changing the perception. Some people automatically think of something crazy like [World Wrestling Entertainment] or that it’s a man’s sport,” Mangini said. “We visit our feeder schools all the time and show them, and once we started doing that, our numbers began to grow. We have 24 kids right now. Just the other day, we had two girls join just because they got to talking to kids in their class and became interested.”

Marcus High School’s girls wrestling team is led by coach Brittany Marshall. (Photo by Hel-en’s Photography)

Marshall agreed. A former standout at Lewisville, she came from the college ranks and is seeing an uptick in participation.

“The first year, we didn’t have enough girls to field an entire team. Last year, we started the year with five. We have 13 now, and my goal for next year is to have 20 athletes on this team,” Marshall said. “What attracted me to coming here was the opportunity to help the sport grow. We want girls to experience wrestling from a younger age.”

LISD has more than shown its commitment to girls wrestling over the years. Back in 2016, an article was written about a young lady named Britney Orellana who had moved to Flower Mound with her family and was upset when she learned her new high school didn’t have girls wrestling. Orellana, a sophomore at the time, had previously competed for Saginaw Chisholm Trail and proceeded to find a handful of classmates who were interested in fielding a team at Flower Mound. And as luck would have it, they also had a potential coach.

Mangini, whose father is longtime Flower Mound softball coach Mark Larriba, was student-teaching at the school after graduating from Texas State. She had previously wrestled at Southlake Carroll all four years in high school, which made her a no-brainer choice.

“I’d been around coaching all my life, and, of course, I had wrestled in high school,” Mangini said.

Marshall had a similar journey, though hers started as an LISD student. She wrestled all four years at Lewisville, which is easily the most veteran girls program in the district. And in that time, she won two state titles before graduating in 2015. Marshall went on to compete at Wayland Baptist University, where she was a four-time All-American and Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association National Champion in 2017. She was also a coach at North Central College.

When LISD had a chance to bring Marshall back to lead its young girls wrestling program, it jumped at the chance.

“From where we started the season to where we are now, it’s drastically different,” Marshall said. “The girls’ confidence is growing. It’s a great feeling to see them grow like this, and for me, that’s the best part. These young women need exposure to the sport, but you can’t expose them to it if you’re not at that same level with them. I know what wrestling did for me, and I want them to have those same experiences. Wrestling helped me grow as a person on and off the mat. I thank God every day that I get to work with these girls.”

As for their rosters, the Lady Jaguars and Lady Marauders are definitely small in numbers but mighty in talent. Marcus has five veterans heading into its season opener this month. That includes sophomores Kennedy Cagle, Janna Sellers, Marissa Sorrells, and juniors Olivia Witter and Hailey Kendrick.

Meanwhile, Flower Mound has an incredibly talented roster that includes four-year star Evelyn Zapata and third-year wrestler Poorna Babu.

Get those girls off the mat? Not a chance.

“We’re changing the perception on girls wrestling, and it feels great,” Mangini said.

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