'Stronger than I thought I was'

December 01, 2023
Burlington High School sophomore Sarina Cline, top, and senior Kyra Nash, bottom, win matches Monday, Nov. 27, during Fort Madison High School’s wrestling invitational. They are among 21 members of BHS’s first-ever girls wrestling team.

Burlington High School sophomore Sarina Cline, top, and senior Kyra Nash, bottom, win matches Monday, Nov. 27, during Fort Madison High School’s wrestling invitational. They are among 21 members of BHS’s first-ever girls wrestling team.

Girls wrestling team opens new doors for BHS Grayhounds.

Like many female athletes, Sarina Cline had never given much thought to wrestling.

To her, the sport was one rooted in aggression and masculinity, one better suited to boys, but that perception began to shift last year and, in recent weeks, it’s been thrown out the window.

After the Iowa High School Athletic Association sanctioned girls wrestling last year, Burlington Community School District Activities Director Jay Huff put out a survey to gauge whether there was any interest in starting a girls team at Burlington High School. There was, and talk of that possibility spread quickly through the student body.

“I heard about it last year and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I should; I don’t think I’d be strong enough,’” Cline recalled on Nov. 28 after beating the first of three opponents she would go up against that night in Fort Madison High School’s invitational. “Everyone thinks it’s just for guys, so when they think of a girl doing it, they’re just like, ‘Do you think you really can do it?’”

The sophomore track and field runner had pushed aside thoughts of wrestling until this fall. As open mats drew nearer, she gave it more consideration. Her doubt lingered, but she found encouragement from another girl who would become her teammate.

“It was coming up this year and everyone was like, ‘I don’t know, maybe you shouldn’t,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I will,’” Cline said. “But then I had a class with Annabel Albert and she said she was doing it and then I was like, ‘You know what? I want to do it, too.’”

And so she did. She was far from alone.

The wrestling team has 21 members: six seniors, seven juniors, six sophomores, and two freshmen.

Some, like Cline, decided to give the sport a try alongside their friends. Others relished the idea of being a part of something from the ground up.

“It’s a first-ever thing, and I wanted to feel the experience of being a wrestler,” sophomore Makayleah Dunson said, adding that she wished she would have tried wrestling before this year, even if it meant being on the boys team.

It’s a sentiment shared by some of her teammates, especially seniors who are discovering their love of the sport in their last year of high school.

Two of those seniors are Kyra Nash and Shariah Hart.

“I never thought about going out for wrestling,” Hart said. “Me and Kyra were at her house and she was doing Aliya (Snyder’s) hair, and it was the day before wrestling even started, and she started telling us, ‘You guys should do wrestling.’”

“I was like, ‘I’ll do it if you do it,’ and then we did it,” Nash said as she caught her breath following her first match of the night.

Both said they’re glad to have the opportunity to wrestle on a girls team before they leave high school, though they can’t help but envy their underclasswomen.

“Girls could join boys, but I wish it was actually just like a girls sport like what it’s doing now,” Nash said. “I feel like if it was my freshman year and I did it, by the time of my senior year, I would be really good. I feel like I wish I did wrestling before now.”

The girls are making up for lost time with an eagerness to learn. That includes recognizing their strengths and opportunities for improvement.

“Coach wants me to practice on being fast and one-leg movement and stuff, so I’ve been practicing that and seeing if I can be really fast at it,” Nash said. “My favorite move actually is neck hold and slam, which I did on (my opponent) to get that win. That’s my favorite. It takes more strength than speed, so it’s really fun.”

Starting from square one

Ryan Patton has coached athletes in new-to-them sports before, but never a full team.

“We’re just staying very basic,” the head coach said. “They’re picking it up fairly quick, so we’re able to progress faster, but it’s going to be a challenge until we get some mat time under us.”

With just three meets under their belt, the girls already are showing improvement.

“It’s been exciting,” assistant coach Chad Witte said. “They’re hard workers and they’re willing to learn. They’re getting better every day.”

At their first meet at Iowa City High, BHS came in 11th out of 18 schools. In Fort Madison, they placed fourth overall out of 15 schools.

This isn’t Patton’s first time coaching for Burlington. He was the assistant varsity wrestling coach from 2003-2010 and the head middle school wrestling coach from 2015-2023. When the position to coach the high school’s first-ever girls wrestling team, he stepped right up.

“I’ve been part of the boys program since 2002, so rather than see it kind of flounder or be a split program between boys and girls, it’s good to be able to start something new and be able to take it over,” Patton said.

Witte also brings a considerable amount of experience.

“My wife and I ran the youth club for like 13, 14, years, so I’ve been out of it for a few years and decided to come out of retirement to help out,” said Witte, whose son wrestled from kindergarten through 12th grade.

They hope that participation will remain high in the years to come. So does the team.

“Our team is already pretty big,” Cline said. “It feels good, and I’m really excited to see how it goes. I’m hoping to expand it more and maybe come back if I can and coach. We’ll see. Who knows? I think I would love to coach something like this.”

Life lessons from the mat

Wrestling has taught the girls how to do everything from head locks to single-leg takedowns, but it’s also taught them to go beyond their comfort zone to achieve their goals.

“When you step on the mat for the first time ever, it feels like you’re like stone,” Dunson said. “You don’t know what to do, but then when you get used to it, your first match you know will come and you know how to stop it and stuff.”

Sophomore Danica Goble, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, who was a state qualifier in high school, said overcoming that initial anxiety can be the hardest part.

“We have a lot of girls who are really good and can do really good things on the mat,” Goble said. “They just have a lot of anxiety before they get out there, but it feels really good to be a couple of the first girls to be on the girls wrestling team and for us to have the most girls out of a lot of schools.”

And the sport has helped Cline get past her self doubt and discover new things about herself.

“I’ve learned that you’ve just got to believe in yourself,” Cline said. “My first match, after I lost my second one, I just stopped trying, stopped believing in myself, but then I realized if you just keep going and keep trying, you have more of a chance to win … I definitely learned I’m stronger than I thought I was.”