Locals bring girl power onto mat

Photos by Corey Stolzenbach/The Herald
Heritage Hills freshman Makenize Smith practices with eighth grader Sean Windell on Feb. 4 in preparation for the Feb. 6 Evansville North regional.


Heritage Hills wrestling coach Adam Zollman liked some of the new wrestlers he had in some of his weight classes this year. One of those freshmen this year competed for the Patriots in the 106-pound class, and was a state champion at the middle school level before joining the varsity squad this year.

Winning a state championship in middle school is an accomplishment in and of itself, but that’s not the only thing about Heritage Hills’ 106 wrestler that stood out compared to the others.

Makenize Smith is just the second girls wrestler Zollman has ever coached, but she’s not just competing on the mat, she’s bringing it and scoring wins on it, too. The technique and the intensity that this freshman has brought helped the Pats score points in meets and duals.

There’s a stigma that comes with being a girl who wrestlers, and male opponents who have wrestled her underestimated her going into the match. But once the match is underway and after it is over, anybody who underestimated Smith found out that they shouldn’t have done so.

“They come out, and I don’t say they take her lightly, but they kind of see it, and they don’t think it’s going to be as hard,” Zollman said. “And then, all of a sudden, they’re in for a battle right off the bat.”

Smith noted there’s a stigma to be had with girls who wrestle, but she’s been able to hold her own against her male opponents out on the mat.

“Some of them are just like, ‘Yeah, I just got beat, she’s pretty good,’ ” Smith said. “None of them don’t take it that well.”

However, there’s no stigma within the Heritage Hills wrestling program — nor would such stigma be tolerated.

“That’s an expectation,” Zollman said. “We set it early — we set it early in junior high and it’s just continued on. The kids know that it doesn’t matter who you’re wrestling, there’s a respect level. Because they know if those teams are doing the same things we are, they’re going through the same, hard practices. They’re going through the hard days, they’re watching what they’re eating, they’re doing all that kind of stuff. So, the respect’s there — male/female, it doesn’t matter, and they know that.

“If I would ever hear something out of somebody’s mouth negative towards that, it’s dealt with on the spot, and enough that everybody knows that,” he continued. “And we’ve never had that issue.”

The Patriots have treated her no differently than they do anybody else. They practice hard with her on the mat, just as she practices hard with them, and she’s had various practice opponents this year, such as sophomore Blake Duttlinger, assistant coach Nathan Lamar, a 2019 Heritage Hills graduate, and also freshman Garrett Forler.

Heritage Hills freshman Makenize Smith works on assistant coach Nathan Lamar on Jan. 13 in practice. Smith has had a banner freshman year on the mat as the runner-up in the 106-pound class Jan. 15 at the Indiana High School Girls Wrestling State Tournament, and was also the sectional runner-up in her class Jan. 31 at the Castle sectional.

Smith practicing with boys would bring a lot out of them on the mat. Forler told the Herald that Makenize shows a lot of technique, but is very intense in practices.

“She’s a very good practice partner,” Forler said. “She lets you do what you need to do, but with enough intensity that she doesn’t just let you do it. And she’s always helping me on certain things that she knows, and just building on my knowledge as well.”

“When I was in middle school, she would kick my butt every day, and it was pretty tough wrestling her, but now that I’m bigger, I’m kind of reaching her level,” Duttlinger said after wrestling with her during practice Jan. 13. “Which for a girl to be that good at such a young age is very impressive, and it really shows her work ethic.”

Duttlinger said he is “always sore” whenever he wrestles with Smith, but added how proud the team is of her success. Smith further brightened her star Jan. 8 at Franklin when she won the Southern Indiana Regional in the 106-pound class to advance to the Indiana High School Girls Wrestling State Tournament for Jan. 15 at Hamilton Heights. Her prowess and success made her the top-ranked girl in the state at her class.

Smith said her regional mindset was to get out through the attack and not wait for the other person to do something, and keep going. She knew how good it felt to stand atop the podium at Franklin, adding that she felt high off the ground.

“It’s a product of hard work and determination,” she said.

Zollman wanted his freshman to be aggressive, and he described her as having a huge confidence level.

“She slaps hands in the beginning, and she’s going through you,” he said. “And she’s the aggressor, she comes after people, knows what she’s doing on her feet and then if she gets on top and gets a leg in, she’s wrecking.”

He also loves how good of a listener Smith is — always heeding the advice of the coaches when she gets into a funky spot and immediately makes corrections. Doing that, Zollman said, makes her success a shock to no one.

She’s seen a lot of body types in the 106, and Smith really improved her strength level through the course of the year. Seeing the different body types from wrestlers at different grades also made her adjust to her wrestling style.

There’s no question that squaring off against the male wrestlers helped her prepare for her matches against other girls.

“When she puts her hands on the females, she’s so used to wrestling the guys, it’s awesome,” he said.

What Zollman has been proudest of is the grit that she shows.

“She takes things in stride,” Zollman said. “She’s wrestled some top-level guys this year, and kind of got it put on her a little bit, which is okay; and the fun part is, instead of dwelling on it, she’s like, ‘Alright, what have I got to get better at,’ and willing to put the time and effort into fixing the little things. That’s the biggest part. She just keeps learning, and it’s getting scary because I know even some of our guys in the room are like, ‘Uh, oh.’ She’s getting better in this position, she’s getting better in that position that they got to keep their heads on a swivel because she’s putting it on (them).”

Smith took second place Jan. 15 at the state tournament in Hamilton Heights — scoring a couple of wins to get to the championship round, only to fall shy to Kelsey Bilz from Madison Cosolidated in a 2-1 decision in the championship match.

Her success continued Jan. 30 at the Castle sectional, garnering another second place finish, this time against male competition, but she didn’t miss standing atop of the podium by much. Her opponent was the undefeated Leighton Ramsey, who came away with a 7-6 win on her, and her regular high school season came to an end Feb. 6 at the Evansville North regional.

Yet, even with all the success she’s had on the mat this year, Zollman believes she’s still being underestimated because of her sex.

“You still got some old school mentality where they see a female and they feel like they’re going to come in and just run through her,” he said Feb. 4. “And she’s got 31 wins on her record so far this year. There’s 31 people — there’s some forfeits in there, too, but 31 people found out differently.”

He believes it’s only a matter of time, though, that she’s standing atop the podium at sectionals, that she could be a multi-time sectional champion, and it isn’t too soon for Smith to start looking forward to her sophomore year of wrestling. She’s currently scheduled to compete in the Feb. 27-28 Frosh-Soph state meet at Southport Fieldhouse.

Another Girl

Yet, Smith isn’t the only local girls wrestler who competed her freshman year of high school.

Rebecca Snider took to the mat for Southridge in the 120-pound class, and was at the regional that Smith won in the 106. Smith went 1-2 at the regional, and also saw some success the next day at the Tecumseh Duals by going 2-1 in a varsity event.

Southridge freshman Rebecca Snider does some running in practice in January.

“She’s a hard worker, she shows up every day, she makes a genuine effort to try to improve and get better every day,” Southridge coach Kurt Collins said.

Like Smith, Collins noted that Snider took some licks, but she kept coming back and did the right things. He described her as polite, pleasant and easy to coach. He joined Zollman in saying that any stigma against Snider from any of her male teammates would not be tolerated, and he hasn’t noticed animosity from any of the boys anyway.

“The expectation is as high on her as it is anybody,” he said. “They’re all wrestlers out here — they’re not boys and girls, they’re all on the team doing the same things. Her 20 laps are the same length as everybody’s else 20 laps, and her 10 push-ups are the same as everybody else’s.”

Snider isn’t as experienced as Smith is, as Snider began wrestling in eighth grade. She talked to her friend and teammate, freshman Maddox Vernon, who said that girls can join, just that they haven’t joined. She admitted that there are a lot of stares and some shock that comes with her wrestling, but she’s enjoyed it.

“It’s hard, it’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Snider said. “You get a lot of friends through it, and you get a lot of opportunities and it’s a lot of fun.”

She’s also seen the benefit of getting mat time with male wrestlers because they toughen her up against the females. Her mindset when competing is to be aggressive — stick through it, keep fighting and power through it no matter what.

Snider and Smith crossed paths with each other and hung out at the regional meet, though they mostly talked about stuff other than wrestling. The wrestling stuff they did talk about pertained how Snider performed and the things she needs to work on. Smith advised Snider to keep on trying, even if she loses.

“I just showed her a few moves,” Smith said.

Snider aspires to stay with wrestling through all four years of high school — hoping to get onto the podium both at the girls regional and at state competitions one day.

“I would love to see her enjoy it enough and accomplish enough here that she felt confident to take it to the next level sometime,” Collins said. “At Indiana Tech up by Fort Wayne, they just started a female college team. Why not Becca? That’s how I think about those things — why not Becca? If that was something that she would be interested in, I would very much encourage her to do it, do whatever I could to help her achieve that goal.”

Southridge freshman wrestler Rebecca Snider works on fellow freshman and practice partner Maddox Vernon in January.

What’s Next?

Girls wrestling is currently not sanctioned by the Indiana High School Athletic Association, but that’s not to say girls wrestling is without a movement or without its supporters. Jason DeLois is the Women’s Director for the Indiana State Wrestling Association, and he’s been trying to get it to become a reality in the state.

“We’ve gone for so long giving our boys these opportunities, why would we deny half the population the same opportunities?” he said. “It’s ridiculous. That’s really why I came on full fledged with it.”

DeLois is no stranger to the things Smith has done on the mat. She won the 2020 IHSWCA Middle School State Championship in the 110-pound class against his daughter, Sydney DeLois, of New Palestine. He noted how tough of a wrestler Smith is.

“Naturally, that’s my daughter she wrestled, so I kind of wish it would’ve went the other way, but it didn’t, and that’s wrestling,” Jason said.

Forest Park wrestling coach Craig Recker has coached grade school girls, but not high school girls. His support for girls wrestling being sanctioned also stems as a parent and his concerns about boys wrestling girls.

“I would not have had a problem with my daughter (Autumn) wrestling other girls, I did have a problem with my daughter wrestling guys,” he said. “As a dad as much as a coach, I see how tough it is on guys that are really strong, and how tough the sport is, you might see. I have a harder time putting my daughter out there in the same circumstances — not that they can’t have the same circumstances, but I feel like it’s a much more level playing field when it’s girls versus girls.”

TrackWrestling.com said 26 states have sanctioned girls wrestling, with Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin joining the fray in 2021, while Montana, Oklahoma and South Dakota did so in 2020.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Jason said about girls wrestling being sanctioned in Indiana. “I would not be surprised if it didn’t happen this year. COVID would be the only reason it really is being held back for it not being sanctioned this year, but if it doesn’t happen this year, it should happen the next three years because we’re only entertained a proposal every other year. In the spring, we have a high school girls wrestling committee set forth to be able to go to the IHSAA and give them proposal, and it’s really just what they want it to look like.”

Jason believes in equal opportunity, and that’s what he would put in his proposal to the IHSAA.

The proposal will mention safety issues, since a 152-pound boy may be much stronger than a 152-pound girl. He also would suggest that the weight classes for the girls not be the same as boys weight classes, since he anticipates the numbers for girls wrestling will be low at first.

Collins also doesn’t see the numbers being an overnight thing for girls wrestling if it were to be sanctioned by the IHSAA.

“It would be arrogant for me to think I could amass a full female by next year,” he said. “Now, would I try? Absolutely. Do I think I’d be successful? Probably not. Would I get some? Absolutely.”

Jason knows girls wrestling is coming full force to high schools. There’s no doubt about it, to which Zollman agreed. He’s hoping this can happen by the 2021-22 school year.

“I don’t see any reason why we would say no,” he said. “I really don’t. I don’t think there’s any negative aspect to any of it.”

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