(First published in the November 27, 2019 issue of City Pages)
UW-Stevens Point’s new wrestling team is not only a first for a UW campus, it’s also an enrollment tool.
Jessika Rottier and Alex Willette, two athletes of the first-ever UWSP women’s wrestling team.
Alex Willette walks onto the wrestling mat in the Berg Gymnasium Nov. 13, donned in a purple and gold singlet, the same colors that line the wall of the UW-Stevens Point gym. She shakes hands with her opponent from Lakeland University, a private college in eastern Wisconsin. The teams’ score is 19-19, and hers is the last match of the night. All eyes in the Berg are on Willette — members of the men’s team watching next to the mat, members of the crowd from the stands. Her match would decide the winner.
By the way, this is her first wrestling match. Ever.
The first engagement doesn’t go well for Willette. She shoots in for a takedown and gets flattened. But an illegal move from her opponent stands the two up. They grapple again. This time she does the same thing to her opponent when her opponent shoots in, flattening her out and earning points. Willette goes for a bow and arrow, pulling on the foot of her downed opponent, but can’t quite pull it off and the ref stands them up again.
The third time is a charm. Willette, locked with her opponent, reaches up to secure a head and arm throw, twists and slams her opponent to the ground, and holds on for the pin, and the win for the UWSP Women’s Wrestling Team.
The Berg goes crazy. The men’s team jump out of their chairs on the side of the mats and shout. Spectators in the stands are on their feet. Willette and the UWSP women’s team both earn a first home win.
As in, ever.
The UWSP women’s wrestling program started only this year. Coached by Johnny Johnson, who also coaches the men’s team, the program of nearly a dozen women is not only a first for UWSP, it’s one of the few in the entire state and the first-ever at a UW campus.
To say the school is breaking ground is an understatement. The state’s high school sports organization WIAA (Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association) doesn’t separate boys and girls wrestling.
Many states do now, though. Johnson pulls up a TV report from Kansas, where that state’s high school sports association recently created separate boys and girls wrestling programs. The report shows 60 girls coming out and practicing wrestling techniques.
The sport is growing among girls and women, but that’s not the only reason UWSP liked the idea. Women’s wrestling is actually a pretty useful recruitment tool for the university that has struggled in recent years with low enrollment. Having a sport no other public university in the state has (but some private colleges do) means any female wrestler will take a good look at UWSP.
It’s likely one of many more sports to come to UWSP, Johnson says, such as women’s lacrosse. But wrestling had a distinct advantage: Adding a women’s program didn’t cost the university much. Johnson now coaches both programs, allowing him to be a full-time coach versus also having a teaching load — something he says he was always happy to do and enjoyed, but his passion for wrestling is clear and he certainly doesn’t mind being able to devote himself fully to the sport. The mats and practice room are already there, as is the weight room. “They needed some warm-ups and some singlets,” Johnson says. “Right now we’re operating under keep it simple.”
It also had a low barrier to entry. A team sport usually needs a specific number of players — a school couldn’t start a baseball team with eight players, for example. Wrestlers take on each other one on one but also score points for their team. UWSP technically could have a team with three women.
They ended up with far more than that.
Adding a new sport
UWSP wrestler Megan Struble, left, a freshman from Seymour, competing in a match Tuesday.
Johnson wasn’t subtle about his support for starting the program. UWSP Athletic Director Brad Duckworth liked the idea of a women’s wrestling team when Johnson pitched it, but wanted to see the data to prove there was a demand. Every time Johnson would come across an article or TV report about a women’s or girls program springing up, he would send it to Duckworth. That happened quite a bit, since the sport is growing.
Numbers are needed for competitiveness, of course. There are ten weight classes in women’s college wrestling, starting at 101 and up to 191 (men range from 125 to 285). The nine wrestlers on the UWSP team now (the tenth is also a coach and part-time grad student so she will wrestle next semester), don’t necessarily fall neatly into the various weight classes. You might get four women around one weight class and none for another. But many of the other programs they’re facing are also new, so matches are still competitive, as demonstrated by the team’s narrow victory over Lakeland.
A key to seeing women’s collegiate wrestling grow is found on the high school level. Right now, Johnson says, a lot of girls sign up for wrestling at young ages, when gender differences aren’t stark enough to affect competitiveness.
The problem is that many states don’t have separate boys and girls wrestling. Once girls get to a certain level, wrestling with boys, who generally are much stronger, becomes frustrating, and many girls quit.
There are exceptions. Alyssa Lampe, who wrestled at Tomahawk High School and went on to wrestle for Team USA from 2009-2015, was the first-ever girl wrestler in Wisconsin to qualify for the state championships. In 2006 she took second place in the Wisconsin championships, wrestling against the boys.
Lampe expressed excitement about UWSP’s new women’s program when asked by City Pages. There were maybe four colleges offering a women’s program when she was looking in 2006 to wrestle on the collegiate level, Lampe says. “Women’s wrestling is the fastest growing sport and more colleges are needed to support that,” Lampe says. “[UWSP starting a program] makes me proud to come from a state that supports women’s wrestling.”
Lampe is right about the sport growing. In 1990, there were only 112 girls in the U.S. participating in girls wrestling, according to USA Wrestling. Those numbers grew every year and as of 2016-17 season there were more than 14,000. It’s now more than 21,000, according to a report from the National Federation of State High School Associations, and that doesn’t include girls who are wrestling on boys teams. Indeed, it’s hard to determine the number of female wrestlers in Wisconsin because the state, like many others, doesn’t have separate programs, and thus the number of girl wrestlers aren’t reported to the NFHS.
In the 2017-2018 school year, six states created separate high school girls wrestling teams, says Gary Abbot of USA Wrestling, and more like Kansas are adding them. That has brought up a total of 15 states with separate high school state wrestling tournaments for girls, according to NFHS data.
Johnson want WIAA to take the hint. The state’s athletic association’s offices happen to be in Stevens Point, and he’s hoping the UWSP women’s wrestling team will exert some influence or inspiration on WIAA to create a girls wrestling classification. UWSP’s Berg Gym will host the state girls high school wrestling tournament in March, which Johnson hopes will help raise interest in the UWSP’s women’s team.
The UWSP women’s wrestling program was announced in November of 2018, and word spread pretty quickly, especially among fans of the men’s team, and women in the state looking to compete at the collegiate level. And as one would expect of any college head coach, Johnson started reaching out to potential recruits. They’d hoped to have eight or nine women, but ended up with 13 to start. And even more women will be able to compete next semester. One is in the National Guard but will be able to complete next semester, and the current assistant coach, Jessika Rottier, will be eligible to wrestle next semester.
A first match
Willette came from a wrestling family, but her family wasn’t too keen on her competing as a wrestler in school. She instead took to the sport of powerlifting in high school, and during her undergrad she played four years of rugby at UWSP. The Minnesota native also worked out with her high school wrestling team for conditioning (anyone who’s participated in wrestling knows how good of a workout it is). While she hadn’t wrestled competitively before, she was no stranger to rough and tumble sports.
So the opportunity to wrestle for UWSP while pursuing a graduate degree in health and wellness held a lot of appeal.
Willette says practices have been challenging — even more than she expected — but that the women’s team has bonded quickly and has received a lot of support from the men’s team. That was obvious in how they cheered on the women’s team during that first home meet against Lakeland University. Willette says some of the male wrestlers helped her train right after the sport was announced. Willette had managed the men’s team during her four years of undergrad study at UWSP. “You’re doing something not a lot of other people are doing,” Willette says. “Even watching the men’s team practices for so long, I didn’t realize how challenging they are.”
Willette is relatively new to the sport, but Rottier is not. Rottier, from Pulaski, wrestled since she was three years old and all the way through high school. She wrestled collegiately for University of the Cumberlands, a private college in Kentucky. Her brother wrestled at UWSP and Rottier often came in and practiced with the UWSP boys team on her breaks. She won the 2014 Pan American Games. Johnson asked her if they formed a women’s team, would she come back to Wisconsin and coach or even participate? One day she got a text telling her it was on — UWSP would have a women’s wrestling team and she was going to be on it as a coach and as a wrestler.
Seeing the team get its first home win was “pure, raw emotion,” Rottier says. She loves her new role coaching (she’s even coached a men’s practice) but can’t wait to get on the mat herself next semester. “I love working for Jake and Johnny,” Rottier says. “It’s always a fun time.” Rottier says they make sure her workload between helping coach the team and her graduate school studies are well balanced.
Willette wasn’t sure she even had a match going into the bout with Lakeland. She tried to make the weight cut to 170 but she came up short. During the match, her would-be opponent elected to match her at 191, giving up four pounds in the matchup.
Despite it being her first match, despite the pressure of a tied score and hers being the deciding match, Willette was determined to get the win. She maintained her persistence and could tell her opponent was wearing down. Her persistence helped put UWSP Women’s Wrestling on the map.
“I just put on a demeanor that I was tougher than her,” Willette says. “That I knew I was going to win, whether I did or not.”