HAZLET – On Oct. 10, 2018, officials at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association voted unanimously to make girls wrestling a state-sanctioned sport paving the way for hundreds of New Jersey girl wrestlers to now have their own sport and own tournaments to compete in.
New Jersey becomes the first state in the Northeast to offer the sport and the 12th in the United States.
Previously, girls were required to compete against boys if they desired to wrestle in the high school ranks. More than 120 girls wrestled in the Garden State last year against boys, according to Flo Wrestling.
As a new sport, girls will have the choice to compete solely against girls or also against boys during the regular season and up to the regional championships.At that point, they will need to decide to compete in the postseason either against boys or girls only.
The girls will be seeded and compete in a NJSIAA Regional Tournament at Red Bank Regional High School on Feb. 17. From there, the top three wrestlers in each of the 10 weight classes will advance to the state individual championships held at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on March 1-2.
There will also be a Shore Conference girls wrestling tournament this year on Jan. 29.
Raritan is one of three Shore Conference schools, Jackson Memorial and Manalapan being the other two, which have full rosters and can compete in all 10 weight classes (14 for boys) in dual meets.
Princeton University wrestling coach Chris Ayers, whose daughter wrestled against boys at Princeton High School last year, worked tirelessly behind the scenes with Bill Bruno, an NJSIAA assistant director, to make girls wrestling in New Jersey a reality.
Unlike Jackson Memorial and Manalapan, who made history when they met in the first scholastic girls wrestling event in the state on Dec. 14, 2018, Raritan employs a separate wrestling coach for the girls program.
Melissa Gardner, who was an assistant coach on the boys team for the past two years when two girls wrestled on the boys team, assumed the position as head coach of the girls team this season.
“I was brought on two years ago because they (boys) had two girls that were wrestling and I compete in MMA (mixed martial arts) and they wanted a female coach,” Gardner said. “Mia (Lazaurs) wrestled with the boys last year and she’s a member of the girls team now. We had 30 girls show up to see what it’s all about, but since we started practicing, we have 11 girls totally committed to the program.”
Due to the newness of the sport, most schools in the Shore Conference as well as the state are unable to fill a full roster and compete in all 10 weight classes in dual meets. So, most of Raritan’s matches will be in tournaments where they operate in a round-robin format where wrestlers alternate with each other combining the various weight classes.
“Most of what the girls are going to be doing this year, because there’s a lack of full teams, is going to be tournaments,” said Gardner. “That’s the best way to get the most matches because even schools that have partial teams of girls will bring them.
“So, what they’ve done with the girls at every tournament we’ve done so far is instead of brackets by weight class they go with four or five weight classes in a bracket and they wrestle in a round-robin format so they get more matches. It’s very similar to what they do for JV boys,” Gardner continued.
Lazaurs wrestles at 225 pounds and is a perfect 6-0 having made use of her time with the boys to dominate so far.
Joining her on the team are Casandra Auletta (7-2) at 118 pounds, Cristine Gavasheli (7-1) at 111 pounds, Victoria Hart (4-3) at 147 pounds, Chloe Wong (3-3) at 111 pounds, Jilian Acevedo (3-4) at 127 pounds, Brook Gaetani (3-4) at 161 pounds, Jazleen Guzman (2-4) at 105 pounds, Gianna Seely at 185 pounds and Alexa Garguilo at 136 pounds.
“It’s amazing,” said Gardner of being one of the pioneers to usher in a new era of wrestling in New Jersey. “To be honest, I did not expect this to happen, at least not this soon, but it’s long overdue. I absolutely think it’s going to grow a lot. Our recreational program in the Hazlet area has even started a girl’s branch and they have like 15 little girls starting to wrestle. So, once you get those feeder programs going it’s really going to take off.”