As Spotsylvania coach David Reck droned on about front headlocks and high-crotch takedowns during a recent practice, a cluster of wrestlers paid particularly close attention. Their ponytails bobbed with each maneuver, drilled again and again alongside practice partners and fellow pioneers in the sport.
For years, select girls have wrestled alongside their male counterparts, but at Spotsylvania, an all-female roster numbers 14 and competes at VHSL-sanctioned girls’ events. None have wrestled before, but what they lack in experience they atone for with a poriferous approach to picking up each shot or technique.
“They don’t have bad habits,” assistant coach Kevin Bowling said. “The only thing they’re doing is what they’re learning now. They’re sponges.”
The impetus for forming a girls’ squad came from former Spotsylvania coach Gary Woods II. Woods, who has since taken a job outside the county, attended USA Wrestling’s fall meeting, where learned that the Virginia High School League could introduce a girls open state championship—similar to golf—as soon as 2021.
“He said, ‘I‘m going to start recruiting girls now,’ ” Knights athletic director Bill Swink recalled. “I told him that was a good idea.”
Word spread organically. Several of the girls play field hockey, which Woods also coached, while others recruited their JROTC “Raiders” teammates. Most are multi-sport athletes or were exposed to wrestling by older brothers.
Junior Aaliyah Cutlip traded the hardwood for headgear. She quit the Knights’ varsity basketball squad two weeks into the season, drawn by grappling’s individual allure.
“It’s all based on how you wrestle,” Cutlip said. “And you can use all of your aggressiveness on one person. Not hurting them, necessarily.”
Cutlip even volunteered to wrestle at 132 pounds in last weekend’s Battlefield District tournament, though, “I don’t actually weigh 132,” she added, laughing.
Senior Carrie Ferguson always wanted to wrestle, but not against boys. She heard about an interest meeting over the morning announcements and never looked back.
“It makes you think, ‘I wish this was around longer,’ ” Ferguson said. “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Bowling’s twin daughters, Kaitlyn and Amanda, are no strangers to the mat. As the Knights team managers last season, the sophomores’ duties included keeping score and checking equipment.
Still, the twins were reticent to don singlets themselves.
“I was kind of iffy at first, because I didn’t know what to expect,” Kaitlyn Bowling said. “But just watching them do it, it’s a whole different atmosphere than what it is for the guys.”
Spotsylvania wrestled in all four VHSL-sanctioned events this winter; a fifth tournament at Ocean Lakes High was cancelled. Two weeks ago, they hosted the inaugural Lady Knights Invitational, which drew 40 wrestlers from across the state.
Opportunities are expanding at the collegiate level as well. As NCAA gymnastics programs continue to decline, women’s wrestling is a natural replacement from a Title IX standpoint, Swink said. Currently, 38 schools belong to the Women's College Wrestling Association. Most of its members offer athletic scholarships.
When the season began, none of Spotsylvania’s girls wanted to wrestle boys. By its midway point, however, a handful were competing regularly in JV jamborees.
The Knights’ newest additions have picked up pointers from the boys in the room, and, lest they admit it, support.
“They’re actually nice, considering we’re girls,” Cutlip said with a laugh. “You know how guys can be.”