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Barrier Breakers: Wolves wrestlers are defying stereotypes, looking to state
Seconds away from starting a wrestling match at the North Mason Hawkins Classic Invitational in late December, Kaylee Ditlefsen, 16, couldn’t find her competitor.
She learned moments later that her opponent, a boy, was pulled from the match because his parent didn’t want him to wrestle a girl.
Ditlefsen pushed on into the tournament to wrestle a different boy, falling behind before earning a sudden pin.
“There’s only one other time I’ve seen the stands come alive like that,” Sequim coach Bill Schroepfer said. “Everyone but the other coaches and the boy’s parents were cheering.”
Ditlefsen has worked her way up to become one of the best girl wrestlers in the state, ranked seventh in the 130-pound girls’ bracket. She’s looking to the postseason with fellow Wolves wrestlers Sophia Cornell, 16, and Alma Mendoza, 14.
The trio started wrestling in either elementary or middle school and have continued to compete well. However, as the sport grows nationwide for girls, they must continue to face some male foes who won’t wrestle them.
Schroepfer said situations like Ditlefsen’s in North Mason are becoming less common because boys and girls typically don’t mind wrestling each other. When someone opts not to wrestle the opposite sex, he said, it’s likely more the girls’ parents making the call than boys’ parents.
“As a parent, I understand that,” Schroepfer said. “I don’t know if I’d want my daughter wrestling a boy.”
But the girls know what they are getting themselves into, Mendoza said.
“I’m asked questions all the time, like, ‘How do you wrestle a girl?’” she said. “Like anyone else.”
The girls encounter false presumptions all the time.
“There’s a misconception that we’re just in it for the guys,” Ditlefsen said. “There’s a lot of stuff like that. Even the guys say, ‘You’re girl, I don’t want to hurt you.’”
Yet she and the other girls see wrestling boys as an opportunity to become better wrestlers.
“The last time I lost to a boy, I came off the mat smiling because I know it helps me get better for wrestling girls,” Ditlefsen said.
Cornell said she experienced a similar situation to Ditlefsen recently at Port Angeles’ Battle for the Axe tournament, where an opponents’ school didn’t let its boys wrestle girls.
“We’re going to do what we can to win,” Ditlefsen said. “Losing to a guy used to feel bad but now I see it as good experience for the postseason.”
Mendoza, a freshman, said there’s a big difference between middle school and high school wrestling.
She’s fought off an early season injury and seen tougher competition, but she agrees stereotypes remain strong. “I don’t know how many guys I’ve made cry because I’ve beat them,” she said.
Join the ranks
When Ditlefsen first brought up the idea of wrestling in seventh grade to her parents, it was a hard sell. Her father is Dave Ditlefsen, athletic director at Sequim High.
“I was a cheerleader, I played basketball and my whole room is pink,” she said. “I was a girly-girl, but for me, I wanted to do something different because I don’t want to be the same as everyone.”
Her parents made her stick with it and she ended up loving it. She recruited Cornell, whose father, cousins and uncles all wrestled, too.
“It was in my blood,” Cornell said.
Her mother, Donna Cornell, said when Sophia first mentioned wrestling she thought, “No.”
“She’s a very determined young lady and my job is to support her,” Donna said. “I’m glad we had a team that would accept her.”
After years of traveling to tournaments, Donna finds girls wrestling, while growing is still not a big thing.
But she sees her daughter a role model for others — Sophia plays the trumpet in Sequim High School’s band and jazz band, wrestles and plans to go into the Marines.
“I think if (wrestling) puts me ahead of the pack then great,” Sophia Cornell said.
Ditlefsen and Mendoza hope to wrestle in college, too.
Mendoza, the youngest wrestler, likely had the earliest start, wrestling in fourth grade.
“I wanted to do it and convinced my cousin to do with me, but he quit the first day,” she said. “I loved being tough and with wrestling I could do that.”
When she moved to Sequim in seventh grade, Mendoza didn’t know anyone, but said she’s gotten 100 percent support from her mom and the team, she said.
From the beginning
Each girl remembers their first battle on the mat.
Ditlefsen had to overcome butterflies in her stomach. “I felt like I was going to throw up,” she said. “But I pinned her in 13 seconds.”
Mendoza first faced a boy in a loss. “It went back and forth and he won by one point,” she said.
Cornell remembers shaking (Tristan Williams of Forks, currently ranked fourth in 106 pounds) hand and being pulled forward because she had such a strong handshake.
“Tristan and me have been competing off and on my whole time wrestling,” she said.
Cornell said she hopes to wrestle Williams in state at some point.
“It’s important to beat Tristan,” she said. “I haven’t beaten her in the postseason yet.”
Mendoza has seen some state competitors already this season.
“Hopefully it gives me a better idea of who I’m going to face and what to do at state,” she said.
Ditlefsen is shooting for the award banners in the rafters. After taking an alternate spot to the state championships last year, she wants to be the champion this year.
She took second place in the Hammerhead Invitational, losing 11-1 to Mariah Horton — a state champ in 2013.
“My goal is to beat her and win the state championship,” Ditlefsen said.
As for Sequim’s future with girls wrestling, Schroepfer is hopeful for as many as eight girls participating in high school wrestling next year.
Two more joined late in the season, he said, and with more girls on the team Sequim can travel more to bigger and better tournaments.