Brawley Girls’ Grapple Their Way To History

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Brawley Union High's Ericka Waters pins a Shadow Hills High opponent during the first ever sanctioned girls' wrestling duel at Shadow Hills High in Indio on Wednesday. Photo by: Ryan Leon
Brawley Union High’s Ericka Waters pins a Shadow Hills High opponent during the first ever sanctioned girls’ wrestling duel at Shadow Hills High in Indio on Wednesday. Photo by: Ryan Leon

In 2006, the Brawley Union High wrestling team was having an annual Powder Puff fundraiser but it was slightly different than the others in the past.

It was a Powder Puff wrestling event but not the usual two teams composed of girls from the same high school playing a boys’ sport, this time Brawley hosted a duel against Holtville High.

The event drew a good buzz with an eager and energetic crowd that evening – and maybe, just maybe a seed was planted.

There had always been a girl or two competing against the Brawley wrestling team, but never one on the Wildcats, Victoria Smith changed that in 2013.

“Being the first girl in the wrestling room was intimidating because it was just a different atmosphere, but it felt good knowing I was the first girl,” the now 18-year-old senior said. “It felt like I was pushing down walls, but I didn’t really know what would come of it.”

Smith was the first to break the mold by stepping foot in a wrestling room – a place the Brawley boys dominated through wrestling for over a decade. After Smith, others decided to follow in her footsteps.

“I started wrestling my freshman year because I thought it would be a good experience. I had wanted to do it when I was younger, but couldn’t,” 16-year-old junior Ana Cuen said. “When I started, I didn’t feel like I was good, but I was able to take third at CIF so I stuck with it and now I’m here.”

In year one, there was one, then came three more and now ten years after that fun-filled Powder-Puff, the girls in the Brawley wrestling room are now a full team.

“I think it’s awesome to see a full team in here after it was just me to start,” Smith said. “Some of them have told me that I was the reason they decided to come out and give it a try, so it just makes me feel like I did something good here.”

With a full team meant they needed a coach, and it was a long-time Brawley coach that stepped up to the challenge.

Raymond Leon has been coaching with Brawley for 30 years, 29 being on the boys’ side of things.

“It’s been different, but the girls are more vocal. They let you know when they are hurting or struggling, whereas the boys won’t tell you anything as if it shows weakness. I like that the girls are upfront with me, it helps as a coach,” Leon said. “I was hard on boys, so now I think I’m more relaxed, and trying to be funny, but at times I have to act angry to get them to listen.”

The team now sits around 20 members, a number Leon didn’t think would stick around.

“They have surprised me. I tell them it’s not an easy sport, its hard work and you’re going to want to give up. I’m impressed,” Leon said. “They’ve come out and stayed the course, they’re tough and they made the decision to wrestle and they are.”

First days of practice can be tough in any new sport, but sometimes wrestling can offer different challenges.

“The first day I was really nervous I just wasn’t used to touching other people or other people touching me and I was anxious because I felt like I wasn’t going to be doing things right,” said first-year wrestler, 15-year-old Maia Ysiano. “But eventually I got used to it and began to enjoy it. I learned that I’m tougher than I thought. I could do this or anything, if I put my heart and mind into it.”

The team has drawn interest from various different girls on the Brawley campus including a cheerleader and a homecoming queen.

“For me it started with Powder Puff. I saw my friends doing it so I decided to join and I started to like it, so I stayed,” 17-year-old senior Ericka Waters said. “You can’t judge a person by their looks and just because I’m girly, doesn’t mean I’m soft and can’t do a physical sport.

If there is one thing I’ve learned is to stay strong no matter what, because when you lose, it’s very hard to keep your head up, but you will always learn something.”

It’s a team full of girls from different ages to different backgrounds but a full team nevertheless. Having a full team opens the door to being able to compete at the girls’ tournament level, which they have done already this year but they were also to make history.

On Thursday evening in Indio, the Brawley girls’ wrestling team competed in its first girls’ sanctioned duel against another girls’ team.

Shadow Hills High hosted a girls’ duel right before their boys’ varsity team was set to square off. T the gym was full of spectators and the lights were dimmed for the history in the making moment.

“I was excited and nervous for them, hoping they would do well and not be overwhelmed by the entrance spotlight because they put on a show and made it look like the real deal,” Leon said of the duel. “I had to get the girls out of this mindset because they weren’t used to having that attention. I just wanted them to stay positive and do what they came here to do.”

The experience was so new for Brawley that they had a hard time lining up for the faceoff, but eventually things got going and they executed, proving they had worked hard.

“I think we were all pretty nervous, but as the duel went on and we saw the score, I was proud of them and all the work we had put in because we deserved this,” Cuen said.

The Wildcats beat the Knights, 52-30, making history in style.

“I’m very proud of them, they came out, battled, and held their head up- win or lose … it was just a really special moment,” Leon said.

Leon wanted the win, but it was an unannounced feeling amongst the girls that they wanted to win for their coach.

“I’m proud to call him my coach … he pushed me and all of us so hard. When I was hurting or making weight he was always there with me in my corner,” Cuen said. “I love him and he wanted that win and this was his goal and I’m happy that I helped make that happen.”

It was definitely a moment that maybe most of the girls didn’t see coming at first, but deep down knew their hard work and growth would lead them to something special.

“It’s just been great to see the growth. I never thought people would join, because it wasn’t as well known.  I’m happy to see where we are now,” Waters said. “I had high hopes for this team and tonight we showed we are capable and I’m excited about what can happen.”

It was a great accomplishment for girls wrestling at Brawley, but only a stepping-stone for the future.

“For me it was a bittersweet feeling, it was amazing they were able to win, but sad knowing I wasn’t there to help my team,” Smith said. “This sport has grown so much for us in such little time. I think that pretty soon not only the boys will be recognized for wrestling here … the girls are going to take over and have a few CIF titles of their own soon.”

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