The most anticipated match of the Los Angeles City Section individual wrestling finals was between two 170-pounders, one of them a senior and a two-time defending champion ranked No. 1 in the state while the other — ranked second in the state — a sophomore who had won the 189-pound division last year but had lost 19 pounds over the course of the season to compete at this lower weight.
The most interesting thing about the match: these competitors were girls.
Birmingham High’s Alexandra Castillo — the sophomore — pulled off the upset at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, Feb. 20, pinning Van Nuys senior Sarah Moore in 1:52 and denying Moore one last chance at a state title. The match not only identified Castillo as a star in the making, it also showed how far City Section girls’ wrestling has come in a short time, with the promise of more to come as a girls’ sport.
At Roybal there were as many girls wearing leotards, mat shoes and protective head gear as the boys. The levels of strength, naturally, varied; but the execution of technique, and the emotion invested in winning and losing were pretty equal. The entertainment value, judging by the roars and moans of friends and families watching from the stands, was the same no matter who was locked in combat.
Birmingham Girls Coach James Medeiros is among those excited about the sport’s growth potential.
“Pretty much, girls’ wrestling is the fastest growing sport in America. And it’s blowing up in our area. We have doubled, even tripled in numbers every year,” Medeiros said.
“I think as sports evolve and society evolves, we end up having more open-minded people in parents and kids thinking of the possibility to compete. And some realize this is a best opportunity to compete and excel in a sport.”
According to the latest data compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations (2014-15), 11,496 girls in 1,806 schools participated in wrestling. (Boys’ wrestling had decreased by 11,000 participants in the same survey.) California by far had the most schools (523) and participants (2,747).
In the Los Angeles City Section, girl wrestlers were separated from boys’ teams and given their own programs four years ago. City officials estimate there are currently 300 or more girls competing. This was the second year boys’ and girls’ finals were held side-by-side in the same venue.
The progress in talent and skill level was evident among those from the Valley. Twelve of the 14 title matches were won by Valley girls. Birmingham finished with six individual champions, and San Fernando had four. Poly won two championships, and Sylmar won one.
The only non-Valley schools to have a champion were Bell and Palisades of Pacific.
Poly interim Jose Campos — who stepped in after regular Coach Terry Gilliard had to step away for this season — was thrilled in watching wrestlers Janet Gutierrez and Christine Contreras win the 137-pound and 150-pound titles, respectively. Not only could their victories attract other Poly female athletes to wrestling, Campos said, it might encourage girls to consider a physical sport as part of a healthy lifestyle.
“I think it excites some of them to see the MMA or watch a Rhonda Rousey, and they now have an opportunity to do something like that in high school and try to take it forward,” Campos said.
“(Poly’s wins) will give our girls here more motivation to go further. And the sport keeps you in shape. I see a lot of females, when they get out of high school, then they want to go to the gym. Girl wrestlers understand that focus now, and they are already excited about how their bodies change.”
Birmingham (267.00) won the girls’ team title, its first, outdistancing two-time defending champion San Fernando (246.50). Besides Castillo, the most impressive individual performer was Birmingham heavyweight Lakiyah Wagoner who — despite a twisted ankle — pinned Monroe High’s Daisy Morales in 59 seconds to win her fourth straight City title. She is the first City wrestler, male or female to accomplish that feat.
Wagoner will try to win a third straight state title at the CIF state finals Feb. 26-27 in Visalia, CA, then decide on a college from the multitude of offers she has received.
Medeiros plans to continue to build on the interest his team is generating on campus.
“In girls wrestling and wrestling in general, everyone wants to watch the girls more than the boys now,” the coach said. “People always ask me about the girls. I think the novelty factor is gone. And women every year are getting better, from the Olympic level on down, in technique and skill.”
On the boy’s side. El Camino Real (231.50 points) held off Birmingham (223.00) and San Fernando (207.00) to win its second straight team title and third in the past five years. Coach Terry Fischer said ECR’s depth had a lot to do with winning the championship.
“A lot of things had to happen in our favor,” Fischer said. “It takes a lot of points….and our kids, they’re overachievers. Eleven of our kids placed in the top 4 in their divisions. The kids were on a mission and I’m so proud of them. And we had some great support from administration, faculty and parents this year.”
Then Fischer acknowledged how girls’ wrestling is worthy of the attention it’s now receiving.
“California girls are the best. And our L.A. girls are some of the best in the nation. It’s exciting to see this,” Fischer said. “If a girl has confidence…how can you beat that? And every girls’ wrestling coach is raising the bar very high.”