Emily Popek grew up in a wrestling family. She watched from the sidelines as her older brother, David, excelled in the sport at Kittatinny Regional High School and mused she might try it one day. But that wasn’t possible. Wrestling is a boys’ sport.
Girls wrestling has worked its way to several local high schools. Emily placed fourth in the Regionals, qualifying for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Championships in Phillipsburg this past weekend. “I never thought I would be able to wrestle,” said Emily, “but since girls wrestling had started to become more popular I thought I would give it a try to see how I did.”
She joined the Sunday practices in Randolph led by collegiate wrestler Skylar Grote, who was teaching girls. “I realized that this was something I really wanted to do,” she said.
Now, in addition practicing with the Kittatinny boys’ team, Emily is a member of a club team in Fairfield and is looking ahead to wrestling in college, where “there are more and more opportunities for girls. If I can find a school that matches up with my major (in intelligence and national security), I’d definitely wrestle.”
’Third is the new first’
Kittatinny’s Kierra Hubmaster placed second at States in the 161-pound weight class. Her teammate, Liliana Zaku-ramos, placed third at 107 pounds.
“I was so happy to even be in States this year as a second-year wrestler,” Liliana said. “After I lost my second match, I just told myself ‘third is the new first’ and gave it my all.”
Emily wrestled in the 114-pound weight class, and, after just five months of practice, placed seventh, loosing to Chloe Ayres, a senior at Princeton High School.
“The Ayres family has been an instrumental part in helping grow women’s wrestling,” said Ashley Iliff, the first girl to wrestle all four years for Newton High School. She is now the coach at Vernon Township High School. “Chris Ayers was a graduate of Newton High School, where I graduated from, and is currently the head Princeton wrestling coach where his daughter was just accepted. He and his wife are constantly promoting and supporting women’s wrestling in New Jersey.”
Iliff sits on the NJSIAA’s Region Seeding Committee. She said the organization has a vast reservoir of talent coming up to the high school level. “This sport is exploding across the country, and New Jersey is leading the way,” she said. “2019 was an eye opener for many coaches to jump on board. Teams are popping up all over the state. I have even seen male coaches braiding females’ hair.”
When she wrestled in college, only 23 colleges offered girls’ wrestling. Now, she said, there are more than 75.
Aaliyah Payne-Paris, a junior at Newton High School, placed third in the state in the 100-pound weight class. She started wrestling as a freshman. Her teammate Jordyn Brannock placed fifth in the state in the 161-weight class. “They are both excellent athletes who have worked hard to make the transition to become excellent wrestlers,” said Newton wrestling coach Eric Bolette. “They both earned their first state tournament trip by finishing third in the North Region two weeks ago in Union.”
Newton has had female wrestlers since the late 1990s. “Three years ago, when the state started a girls state tournament, we had three girls,” Bolette said. “That number rose to five last year, and we currently have six on the team. We look forward to seeing that number increase.”
Maura White of Jefferson placed second in the region and advanced to States to place fourth. “Wrestling isn’t easy nor should it be,” she said. “The greatest gift this sport will ever give is who you become as a result of it.”
This goes for boys — and now girls — who take to the mat.
“I wrestled since I was in first grade, dreaming of an opportunity like this, and to see this dream become a reality for so many young females by opening doors for opportunities is amazing.”