NEW CARLISLE — Female wrestling is still in its infancy stages in the state of Indiana, but the success of local women Sarah Hildebrandt (Penn) and Kayla Miracle (Culver Academy) on the national and international stage shows young girls that the sport isn't just a guy's thing anymore.
"They set the standard," New Prairie coach Bobby Whitenack said. "That opened everybody's eyes. That's another 'X' amount of students in the hallway to help a program out."
Hildebrandt, a 2011 Penn graduate, was the first girl to advance to the semistate her junior year. She recently earned her fourth gold medal at the Pan Am Games and was named the USA Wrestling Women’s Wrestler of the Year in 2018, when she won the U.S. Open and was a world silver medalist. In 2012, Miracle took it one step further, finishing fourth at 106 pounds to become the first female state qualifier in Indiana. She has gone on to win three U.S. Opens and this year's Pan American Games.
"You can't open a wrestling magazine and not see those two," Whitenack said.
Girls wrestling isn't new at New Prairie, where the club program has been co-ed for years. Current Cougars Morgan Breeding, Gretchen Gadacz and Kaitlin Gay all got their start there.
"When I first started coaching, there was no way I'd ever want to coach girls sports," Whitenack said. "They've been a part of the program since elementary school, so it's become a normal thing. I don't think it's anything special because it's girls. We've had girls up here for years. There are 20-some on the elementary team. There are a good amount of girls in other (high school) sports now who wrestled in elementary school. It's an every-day thing. We're all one unit. They're part of the team like everybody else."
While the numbers are still modest, Whitenack expects the sport to continue to evolve on the girls side.
"It used to be a big deal if a girl beat a boy," he said. "There should be no extra cheering. You shouldn't dog a guy for beating a girl. She's just doing what she was taught. We always have around three, but I see, down the road, it will get bigger. It's a matter of time in catching on. There are a lot of positives. The (boys) are more respectful. The word choices change a little bit."
Breeding, a junior, has wrestled for 13 years, following her brother and dad into the sport. She's placed in the last two state tournaments. Three other NP girls -- MaKayla Scarborough (twice), Tanisha Jimenez (twice) and Alyssa Kuta -- have been state medalists, but did not return to the team.
"Sometimes, I'm the only girl," Breeding said. "The boys accept me. It doesn't feel weird at all."
Gadacz and Gay, both freshmen, joined the high school team this season. Gadacz has been part of the NP club since third grade and Gay has done it off and on since first grade. While the high school room is much more accepting, Gadacz has experienced a fair share of reluctance on the part of others along the way.
"I feel like a lot of the guys take care of us up here," Gadacz said. "If we miss a match, miss a practice, they're like, 'Are you quitting?' After the matches, it's, 'Keep your head up, you'll get 'em next time.' In middle school, if you'd need a partner, it was, 'Well, you're a girl, I don't want to hurt you, accidentally touch you.' I'm like, 'Dude, pretend I'm not a girl.' I want to be equal out there. It makes me so mad. I don't care. I'm up here to wrestle. It annoys me. Now that I'm in high school, it's, 'Oh, I'll wrestle you.' They don't care. I'm like, 'Sweet.' In the lower weight classes, it's a little more, 'No, don't touch me, you're a girl.' Most are OK with it, some just don't want to. That's the way I see it."
Not everyone is so understanding.
"I want my aunt to come to a match, but she doesn't think I should be in the sport," Gadacz said. "She doesn't like me wrestling guys. Even my guy friends are like, 'You wrestle? Wow, cool.' I tell the girls they should do it, but they're like, 'No, I don't want to die, I don't want to get crushed by a dude.' You learn to fight back. In middle school, I beat a kid, a male, and his coach was like, 'I can't believe you lost to a girl, she shouldn't even be in this sport.' It bothered me so much. He was screaming at the kid. My coach was like, 'Focus, forget about them.' It happens. I hear it all the time. I walk in, they spot you, their face just drops like, 'I hope I don't have to wrestle her.' I like knocking guys down a notch."
While Gadacz is only wrestling girls this season as she builds up her strength, Breeding and Gay have both had matches with boys, with Breeding winning a couple times.
"My mom didn't know about it at first," Gay said. "My dad signed the permission slip and we sent it in to the school. We told my mom before one of the first meets, she was like, 'What?! What is she doing?!' She's still doesn't like me doing it, but she's proud of me."
The girls competed in a gender-specific tournament Saturday at Penn, the only regular-season one of its kind in close proximity to New Prairie. Their next girls-only tournament, short of another team having a girl in their weight class for a dual, will be in the state tourney. Run independently of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, it started three years ago.
"The state has to have more tournaments," Whitenack said. "There's about one a week in the state, they're just so far away. The school support has to be more by having a female coach."
There is no separation in the practice room, but when the girls have coinciding competitions, Al King coaches them.
"We have really good coaches and that really helps," Gadacz said. "My last meet, I was 0.2 (pounds) over or I would've had a match. There were no other girls. It made me so mad. I've been waiting for so long. Those videos of a dog on a treadmill trying to get a bone, that's me."