By BILL RUDICK
KENNETT SQUARE — The sight of a girl donning a singlet and strapping on a head gear to take the mat for a wrestling match isn't nearly as rare as it was just a few years ago. In fact, girls wrestling is one of the fastest growing segments of high school sports, up 19.8 percent with nearly 8,000 females wrestling nationwide.
But it's just starting to catch on in Pennsylvania. Though there are 94 girls listed on rosters across the state, just 34 have actually wrestled a varsity match. Of those, just one has a winning record — Kennett's Mary Nichols.
The affable sophomore is 15-9 on the season with five wins by pin -- one by technical fall -- and one by major decision.
"It's kind of cool to know I'm at the top of the list of girls in the state,' said Nichols after Thursday's dual meet against Oxford. "But being thought of as the best girl isn't what I care about. I just want to be thought of as a good wrestler, period.'
Nichols started in the sport in first grade and has been in the Kennett wrestling program ever since.
"I watched Shawn (older brother Shawn Stewart and a former Kennett heavyweight) wrestle in middle school and I thought it looked like a cool sport, so I tried it out.'
As with any wrestler, the biggest attraction is the head to head competition itself.
"The one-on-one battles really motivate you,' said Nichols. "And it's a sport that doesn't just come easy. You have to work really hard for everything you get.'
Not everyone is accepting of having a female around in such a male-dominated sport, but Nichols has been fortunate to have some strong supporters every step of the way in coaches John Boyer, who has been with her from the start, and Kennett varsity coach Tyrone Johnson.
"Mr. Boyer has been great all along,' said Nichols. "He's never let me say I wasn't good enough, and has kept me pushing myself all the way. And Shawn and coach Johnson now are great, too. The keep helping me push through everything and make me want to do my best.'
Johnson loves having Nichols in the room.
"She's unique,' said Johnson. "I remember when I first met her in middle school, she was all full of piss and vinegar. She's got such a great attitude and great energy. She works hard to improve every day in the room. And she's a student of the sport. I try to get all the kids to study the sport like she does. And she's the first to get on my case if she doesn't think I'm pushing them hard enough.'
Nichols has some goals in the sport. First and foremost, Nichols is looking to become the first female in District 1 history to qualify for the district tournament. She fell a win short last year as a freshman.
"I'm not going to say I'm going to get to states,' said Nichols. "But I want to get to districts and if I do that, I know I'll be disappointed in myself if I don't qualify for regionals.'
Beyond that, Nichols is looking to parlay her skills on the mat into a college scholarship. There are currently 24 colleges in the United States that offer wrestling as a women's varsity sport.
"I've wrestled a couple girls that got college scholarships, and I hung with them,' said Nichols. "So I know it's not something out of reach for me.'
There is still one area where Nichols has to struggle against old bias in the sport. Teams forfeiting to her rather than giving her a match. She has had six of them on the year.
"I really don't like forfeits,' said Nichols. "I hate not getting the mat time I've worked hard for and think I deserve.'