When an 8-0 major decision loss spelled the end, Fairfield High senior Nicole Small received a half-hug from an opposing coach, walked behind the seats her coaches had sat in and plopped to the Hersheypark Arena floor Friday. Her father and coach, E.J., gave her a tap of affection.
Small's run as the only girl to ever make the District 3 Class AA Tournament ended after just two matches. But she hopes to have been an example other girls could follow in addition to showing she was a quality wrestler after finishing the season 21-14.
"It's definitely a step up," Small said. "It's something that doesn't happen. It makes it cooler."
Small's qualification for the district tournament was a welcome surprise for at least one person: New Oxford graduate Rachael Groft, the first female to wrestle for four years in the YAIAA.
"I think what Nicole's doing is a very, very incredible feat," Groft said by phone Thursday. "I know how difficult it was for me to wrestle, even to make varsity of a guys' wrestling team. I saw her record, and I was like, 'Wow, I'm very impressed.'
"It's something she'll be able to look back on if she doesn't wrestle in college. 'I wrestled in Pennsylvania. I won over 20 matches my senior year. I made the District 3 tournament.' That's a huge deal. It's hard enough for guys to do that, you know."
Small hopes to continue her career at West Chester University or Lock Haven University, two of the few schools to offer women's club wrestling teams. Groft, a 2004 graduate of New Oxford, competed at Lock Haven her junior year before an internship kept her from doing so her senior year.
Wrestling actually brought her back to school after a year-long break after her sophomore year. Lock Haven coach Terry Fike, who was starting the program, emailed her asking if she wanted to return to the mat.
Groft did and practiced against members of the men's team until her teammates, many of them beginners, were able to provide a challenge in practice.
Fike started the program after hearing a presentation about women's wrestling during a convention in Pittsburgh. He was already the strength and conditioning coach for the Lock Haven men's team and was a two-time District 6 champion at Altoona High School.
The Eagles women's team continues today and finished third at the Brock Open, a tournament in St. Catharines, Ontario, in January. The Eagles had just three wrestlers place but finished third.
"And everybody is an underclassman," Fike said. "They're all coming back. We should have 10 or more on our roster next year. Our prospects are very good."
Small wasn't the lone girl to make history this year. Wilson junior Francesca Giorgio became the first girl to compete in a PIAA wrestling championship when the Bulldogs were in the team tournament.
Groft recalled fans from nearby schools having no problem with her competing while she was in high school, but that there were some sexist comments while she wrestled in tournaments farther away.
"Since I started at a pretty young age, the community in New Oxford and surrounding schools knew me," she said. "A lot of people (farther away) weren't comfortable. My parents would hear things, but they wouldn't say what. They would say, 'There were people in that crowd that were disrespectful.'"
Groft, Small and a few other girls have competed locally. Maybe they are the start of something bigger.
"I knew what women were capable of," Fike said of starting his program, which he hopes will eventually be one of the 16 that will allow women's wrestling to be considered an emerging sport by the NCAA. "I knew how tough they were. I knew women's wrestling could be good for the sport. I knew they had the same desire and toughness and work ethic men did."
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