BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP — Karina Santiago had never wrestled before in her life.

The opportunity hadn’t presented itself.

But when the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced earlier this year it would sanction a state tournament for individual girl wrestlers, the Barnegat High School senior did not think twice about taking up the sport.

“I think having girls on a wrestling team is a good asset to have, not only for our school but for other schools in general,” said Santiago, 17. “It can give the idea to other girls to face their biggest fears and not be scared to go out and try something that others say you can’t do.”

New Jersey is the 12th state and the first in the Northeast to sanction girls wrestling.

During a recent practice, Santiago, who is one of four girls on the Barnegat wrestling team, pushed up her sandy-blond hair underneath the standard headgear and confidently jogged on the mat, just like any other member of the team.

She understands that wrestling is not always seen as a girls sport, but that is a reason she wanted to compete on the mat.

She wanted to try a sport that requires the same amount of grit and strength from boys and girls.

“A lot of males underestimate girls that do wrestling,” she said. “I thought that I could join wrestling to not only make a better impact on myself, but also prove to all the boys in wrestling that girls can do it.”

In 2017-18, 16,562 girls wrestled at 2,351 schools across the country, according to an annual participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

California had the most girl wrestlers with 5,286 a decade after it approved the sport.

“The girls never had the opportunity. Now they do,” said Princeton University wrestling coach Chris Ayres, who worked with state high school officials to develop the girls wrestling program. “It’s going to grow every year. There’s just a demand. Once you get this thing started, it doesn’t go backward.”

NJSIAA Assistant Director Bill Bruno confirmed 151 female wrestlers have been added in the state as of Dec. 4, but many schools still need to input their rosters. New Jersey had 126 girls compete in wrestling last season, according to NJSIAA officials.

Ayres’ daughter, Chloe, 15, wrestles at Princeton High School. Once he saw the values she learned through the sport, and the impact it had on his life, Ayres became an advocate to bring girls wrestling to New Jersey.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Ayres said. “Why have we ignored the other half of humanity in the sport of wrestling? There will be some extra work for high school coaches. I just hope they make the push.”

The Barnegat High School wrestling coaching staff began recruiting when the news became official in September, adding four girls to its team — Santiago, juniors Jessi Polcaro and Adrianna Talluto and freshman Jialynn Ramirez.

Barnegat coach Ken MacIver said the number of girl wrestlers on the team could increase by the state tournament in March at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

“The girls are wrestling like the guys, it is just a different gender,” MacIver said.

“It is a great situation that helps grow the sport. I mean, the Olympics have the women (wrestlers), and they are tremendous. Now, they want to do it on the high school level, so we are very excited.”

Ramirez was drawn to the mat because of her brother, Juan Abraham, who was a standout wrestler at Barnegat and has his picture hanging in the wrestling room.

“Not a lot of girls would do a sport like wrestling,” said Ramirez, 14, of Barnegat. “For me, joining the wrestling team got me very excited because it was something I can try instead of those other girl-based sports.”

MacIver coached track and field at Pascack Hills High School in the 1980s, a time when girls weren’t allowed to participate in the pole vault. In the early 1990s, Oregon became the first state to approve pole-vaulting for girls, with states like New York and New Jersey following some time after.

The event has since increased in popularity.

Why not girls wrestling?

“It is going to blow up once other girls start seeing this,” MacIver said. “We are the start, so we are going to see this progress right from here. You are going to see a huge expansion after Atlantic City and a lot more girls wrestling.”

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