Wrestling away the spotlight

Daphne girls nab state wrestling title as sport takes center stage locally and nationally


First, this is nothing like the WWE.

There are no scripts or costumes. This isn’t done for show.

Kaylee Holder has given this mini speech so many times it is second nature. No, she isn’t an actor. No, she isn’t playing.

She is an athlete. She is a wrestler.

And this year, the Daphne High School sophomore is the Girls’ Alabama State Champion in her division.

“When I explain to people that, yes, we are out there really wrestling with all that weight on us they are like, ‘oh my gosh’,” Holder said.

But clutching of the proverbial pearls isn’t the only reaction that Holder and female wrestlers have been garnering in recent months.

These athletes have been drawing crowds and leading their schools to victory, earning enough support, and numbers, to convince the AHSAA to sanction three tournaments strictly for girls in the 2020 season – a historic move in the state of Alabama. The roll toward official girls’ events mirrors a national trend.

“Nationally, the percentage of girls in sports is trending very high,” said Julie Lassere, chair of the Alabama High School Girls Wrestling Task Force. “In the last three years high school girls’ wrestling is the fastest growing sport in the United States."

In Alabama that means just 40 girls registered for high school wrestling in 2019. That number exploded to 130 girls in 2020. Students in grades seventh through twelfth compete in the high school division.

This January, when the All-Girls State Tournament opened, 80 girls from 25 different schools were there to compete in 11 weight classes.

Holder and teammate Emily Sasser emerged with first place titles in their divisions, helping boost Daphne High School to the number one spot over Thompson High School by just three points. The win marked both Daphne High’s and Baldwin County’s first state championship in wrestling.

“We put blood, sweat and tears into this,” Holder said. “It is so rewarding, getting your arm raised after you beat your opponent. It is a really good feeling.”

Holder began her wrestling career just two years ago. She followed her brother onto the school’s team as an opportunity to bond with her older sibling.

And, she said, she found her current sport, soccer, boring in comparison.

She found wrestling just as thousands of girls across the nation were doing the same. Twenty-nine states in the U.S. have sanctioned girls’ wrestling. Most of those programs were established in the last three years, Lassere said.

Now, as girls’ wrestling claims the title of fastest growing sport in America, national organizations, such as Wrestle Like a Girl, work with schools to promote the sport and help with recruitment and coaching resources.

Daphne Wrestling Coach Joseph Jefcoat said that excitement is felt locally. He enrolled more girls on his team this year than in any previous season.

“Anything I can do to promote girls’ sports, I do,” said Jefcoat, the father of four daughters and three sons. “The best way to grow a sport is to let the girls play.”

Freshman wrestler Hannah McNeese, who placed fourth at state, said many people have questioned her decision to wrestle.

She said some guys her age are confused, or even embarrassed by her prowess on the mat. But McNeese said she knows instantly those guys are not for her. Wrestling has given her confidence to be strong, to be herself.

“This has changed my life,” she said. “You are not going to have people who are any closer to you than your teammates. They have seen me at my worst, on the verge of puking when we were literally holding each other up.

“This sport is not just for guys,” she said. “We can do it and we’re whipping butt right now.”

One team

On day one of wrestling practice, unlike other sports where teams are split along gender lines, boys and girls practice together every day, all day.

“I treat them all the same. They practice with the guys from day one,” Jefcoat said. “I teach respect and that rolls downhill. If the coach has the approach that we are all in this together, then they all have that attitude.”

Jefcoat joined Daphne as the head wrestling coach after leading Moody High School, located outside of Birmingham, to the state win in 2019 - one of several title winning seasons he has led over his career.

On the mats, he says he sees all his athletes as equals and more importantly as a community learning to work together.

“We are constantly teaching character as much or more than we train for wrestling,” Jefcoat said. “We train with purpose. We don’t have time to waste.”

After school, the team gathers in the high school cafeteria where, coach is right -wasted minutes equal lost practice time. Team members must first push tables and benches out of the way and set up mats and equipment before they can even begin to warm up.

For many, especially the girls, team practices are the first time they have wrestled, possibly even seen wrestling up close.

“Kids spend years picking up a baseball and playing in the yard. When they come out for wrestling, they are doing something they have never done before,” Jefcoat said. 

Lassere said the accessibility of the sport may contribute to its surge in popularity.

“If you haven’t played baseball before, you most likely are not going to walk onto the high school team,” she said. “Wrestling is an extremely simple sport to learn, which is very inviting to kids.”

On the Daphne team, the first lesson on day one, and every day after, is accountability – to themselves and their teammates.

“As they learn those character skills and grow into that accountability they improve as wrestlers,” he said.

At the girls’ state tournament that accountability meant the difference between a W and going home without the trophy.

The girls brought home the win with just three points to spare. If any team member had lost their match, the entire team would have slipped out of first place.  

“There is a huge level of accountability there,” Jefcoat said.

The divide

Boys are, in fact, harder to wrestle. That is the overwhelming consensus of the team’s girls.

Eighth grader Jena MacDonald, who is now in her second season, explained that in her younger, middle school division and weight group, there is little difference between the sexes.

The boys have yet to hit puberty. Many are still skinny and slim. The boys and girls are more evenly matched as far as strength, she said.

The girls all agreed, the older the athletes grow, the larger the gap in their strength.

“Overall, they just have more muscle mass,” said Holder, who wrestles older students. “They are stronger.”

Still, Holder, who stands at 5 foot 9 inches and 165 pounds, only lost to two male wrestlers this year, besting seven on the mat.

“We do a lot of cardio. We do a lot of weight training. What we don’t have in muscle, we have in endurance. It makes a difference,” she said.

The girls also say most people don’t understand that strength is not necessarily the key to winning.

“People make it look easier than it is,” said Kalyse Hill, eighth grader. “It’s hard to get the moves right. Coach makes us do it over and over to get that muscle memory.”

McNeese adds that self-discipline is key.

“Most people don’t understand how mentally hard you have to be to constantly be proactive and work in a sport,” she said. “My body hurts, and I want to quit, but my mind is telling me to keep going.”

The future

At the all-girls tournament in January, the athletes said the historic event felt like the crossing of a threshold. The girls, all of them from every corner of the state, had arrived at their moment, and they planned to seize it, whether they won or lost.

“We were able to show everyone that we’re not just little spectators,” said Sage Rosario, a Daphne eighth grader who placed third in her division. “We were able to show that we were here. It was incredible. After the tournament we all went and hugged everyone. We all loved each other and barely knew each other.”

“We were literally making history at that tournament,” Rosario said. “It was amazing.”

Emily Sasser, a Daphne junior and champion in her division, agreed.

“I went to state to wrestle and came out with friends,” she said.

Female wrestlers in Alabama still spent much of the 2020 season wrestling male competitors. There must be 40 schools in Alabama that sponsor girls’ high school varsity wrestling before the AHSAA will consider recognizing girls’ wrestling as an official sport.

That would potentially mean wrestling teams would be split, and girls would only wrestle girls. However, it would open a world of collegiate and scholarship opportunities for the athletes.

Until then, practices, tournaments and teams will continue to be integrated.

“Until we can sustain week in and week out girl matches, we shouldn’t hold them back,” Jefcoat said. “If we have the numbers to create that platform then they can compete against just girls, but why hold them back until then?”

The wrestlers say they are good either way. It’s all in the attitude.

“You get what you give,” said Daphne seventh grader, Sophia Chircop.