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Wrestling: Four county wrestlers blaze trail as part of GHSA's first girls state tournament
North Forsyth’s Sophia Eglian (right) smiles after taking down a teammate during a practice on Feb. 12, 2019 at North Forsyth High School. - photo by David Almeda

North Forsyth’s Sophia Eglian squared off against teammate Lyndsey Tatro in practice on Tuesday, preparing like the rest of her teammates in the Raiders’ wrestling room for her big moment.

About 20 minutes in, after a bit of instruction from one of North’s coaches, Eglian positioned herself in a way that took Tatro’s balance from her left leg, and she proceeded to take her down to the mat with a loud thud. Eglian couldn’t help but sit up and smile, mouth agape as Tatro took around 30 seconds laying on her back to regain her bearings.

“It just (shows) another side of me that I didn't think I had before,” Eglian said. “It's a more confident me. When people talk to me, they're like, 'Wow, you're a whole different person on the mat.’”

This weekend, Eglian will have a chance to show that more aggressive side along with three other Forsyth County girls wrestlers: Raiders teammate Jaqeline Palmer, Forsyth Central’s Ashlee Rice, and West Forsyth’s Hailey Patrick. They’ll be making history at the state traditional meet in Macon, with the GHSA’s first-ever girls state wrestling championship getting underway on Saturday. The effect the tournament’s presence has made on the teams has been a measurable one, and coaches and wrestlers alike hope that the added opportunity for girls brings more growth to the sport as a whole.

In a way, breaking gender barriers in predominantly boys sports has been a part of almost all of Forsyth’s girls wrestlers before this season. Rice played football at Otwell Middle School, which is where she discovered wrestling as a supplementary sport. Eglian played boys and girls lacrosse at different points. Despite the existence of feeder wrestling teams at younger grade levels that have had female wrestlers, Patrick and Rice are the first girls from their schools to qualify for state.

“I'm actually kind of surprised,” Patrick said. “I wish some people would realize that this is actually an amazing sport. Some people think, ‘Oh, it's hard. Girls shouldn't do that,’ but I feel like that's wrong. Anyone can do it. I like it because I feel like I finally broke that boundary.”

At last year’s state traditional meet, Statesboro’s Kasey Baynon made history by becoming the first female wrestler to place at the GHSA meet with a fifth-place performance at 106 pounds. Her performance came against boys, and while it was quite an accomplishment, it wasn’t a realistic goal for everyone. The girls tournament is changing all of that.

“(There are) physical barriers against guys that have natural testosterone, and they're naturally going to be stronger, but we can use our technique and speed against girls in a more fair, fun competition,” Rice said.

With the opportunity to place at a state meet heightened, so has the drive to succeed. For North Forsyth wrestling coach Travis Jarrard, the rising level of ambition from his girls has been visible in his wrestling room on a day-to-day basis.

“Now, they have more of an attainable goal to be reaching towards, and that's good,” Jarrard said. “One of the big things that you see that makes it a little bit different this year is (that) they work harder. They had that light at the end of the tunnel that they were shooting for, somewhere they were trying to get.”

While Jarrard and Central head coach Jeremiah Walker agree that the fundamentals and moves are the same across the board, Eglian has seen a difference in terms of the style of wrestling boys and girls exhibit.

“With guys, it's more (strength) based,” Eglian said. “I think I get them on technique. For girls, it's more flexibility and technique -- guys are just (power).”

For Patrick, that dynamic is made even more interesting. This weekend will actually be the first time she wrestles another girl in a meet setting, as she was uncontested in the girls’ sectional meet.

“I don't even know what I'm expecting,” she said. “I guess it's just going to be something you just learn and see how much different it actually is.”

North has already seen a small numbers increase with the advent of the girls tournament. While Eglian had previous experience in youth wrestling, Palmer is actually in her first year playing the sport, drawn to it partially because of the chance to win a state championship. They all hope it’s the just beginning of even more female representation going forward.

“My hope is that is helps grow the sport even more,” Walker said. “Wrestling changes lives. I see it change the lives of wrestlers ever year. It’s a sport that’s analogous with life. My hope is that our numbers of our own program can increase.”