For years, the wrestling room was one of the last places where it was still boys-only.
While girls were playing football and hockey, the only females you'd see in the wrestling room were team managers or cheerleaders. But in recent years that's changed.
This year, four females are wrestling for the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears, a record for the end of the season. Junior Amanda Krafft is in her third year with the team, while junior Courtney Wetzstein and freshmen Wrenna Klose and Brooke Morgan are all in their first years with the Crimson Bears.
The girls and the rest of the Crimson Bears will be in action in Sitka this weekend as Juneau attends a tournament at Mount Edgecumbe High School. Matches start at 6 p.m. tonight, with more action at 10 a.m. Saturday and championship matches at 6:30 p.m.
The idea of females wrestling is still controversial to some -- Anchorage Christian Schools has a standing policy, a policy that's cost the team medals in region tournaments, that any wrestler drawing a female in a tourney bracket must forfeit the match. But girls have been on high school wrestling teams for about 12-15 years in Alaska.
In the last couple of years, the number of girls wrestling has grown and now two are ranked in the current fall season state poll -- Skyview's Melina Hutchison (fifth at 112 pounds) and Nikiski's Tela O'Donnell (eighth at 119). Both Hutchison and O'Donnell wrestle in national tournaments for female wrestlers, with Hutchison the top-ranked girl in the country in her age group and O'Donnell ranked second in hers.
"The girls earn respect on our team," said Juneau coach Bob Mahon, whose helped coach Hutchison and O'Donnell on Team Alaska. "When Amanda first came out for the team three years ago, the only thing she was afraid of was not being respected."
Krafft is the leader of Juneau's four female wrestlers, and her teammates call her "Mama Manda" because of the way she watches over the others. Krafft hasn't wrestled as much this year as in the past because of a bad back and a family vacation over the Thanksgiving week, so she's served as the team manager and helped coach when she's not squeezing in a match or two.
"I wrestled in the eighth grade and Bob saw me and encouraged me to try out," said Krafft, a 112-pounder who also plays goalkeeper on Juneau's soccer team. "I wanted to have fun, but there were never any girls out. I quit volleyball for this. I was the manager as a freshman, but I decided that was dumb and boring. I didn't want to wash towels, I wanted to wrestle."
Klose and Morgan both wrestled when they were in middle school (Klose in Juneau and Morgan in Anchorage), but this is Wetzstein's first year in the sport. But she has an older brother and that's meant a few unofficial living room wrestling matches. In fact, it was a challenge from her brother, Matt, that prompted Wetzstein to go out for the wrestling team.
"It was a different sport to try," said Wetzstein, a 171-pounder who also plays soccer. "My brother said I wouldn't make it through one of the practices. It was a little tough at first, but wrestling's like that."
Klose has been the most successful female wrestler at Juneau this year, posting an undefeated record at 112 pounds three weekends ago at a Skagway tournament and splitting a few matches last weekend in Juenau's tournament. Klose struggled early in the season, but a change in her diet and a look at some videotape turned her season around.
"I wrestled in the eighth grade, then in the club (Mahon's Juneau Tornadoes Wrestling Club) this summer," Klose said. "I wanted to try something new and I'd been in dance since the fourth grade. Most of the time, girls can't handle the practices. I was so sore, my muscles ached. It hurt to lift dishes at home. But I saw Melina and Amanda wrestle and I want to be like them. Hopefully I'll do this all four years."
Morgan, who has been battling asthma and a couple of broken bones in her right hand, has the least action under belt for Juneau. Morgan said a friend got her to go out for the Wendler Junior High School team in Anchorage last year, and she decided to stick with the sport when her family moved.
"When I wrestled up there, I beat all the girls I wrestled and I even beat a few guys," said Morgan, a 160-pounder. "I've always enjoyed the team aspect of the sport. When people find out I'm wrestling, I'll get a few, 'Go for it, girl,' comments. But I'll also get others who say there's no way a girl should be on the wrestling team. I don't mind who's in the sport and if a girl wants to put in all the practice time they should be allowed to wrestle. There's contact in any sport, even soccer and basketball."
On the contact aspect, Mahon said the boys quickly learn there's really no difference in wrestling a girl as there is with a boy. The matches go by so fast there's no time for groping. And Mahon said if the boys aren't careful, the girls will dump them on their backs and pin them. He said five East Coast colleges are now giving female wrestlers athletic scholarships, and Pacific University in Oregon is close to becoming the first school on the West Coast to offer scholarships.
"I get asked all the time what the difference is coaching girls," Mahon said. "At first it was a little different. You've got to approach the girls differently, but then you have to approach each kid differently. On the other hand, you can't treat them any differently than the other wrestlers on the team. I think the girls end up having better technique than a lot of the guys. They have to, they're not as strong."