In its first year as a Montana High School Association (MHSA) sanctioned sport in Montana, girls wrestling has surged in popularity, making it one of the most exciting developments in winter sports this season.
“For Montana to step into that realm, it’s amazing and our girls have really made sure it took off,” Flathead High School coach Amber Downing said. “It’s not quite the slow progression MHSA was anticipating — I think it’s a little bit of a shock for them.”
The inaugural state championship will be held at Lockwood High School Feb. 19-20. MHSA has approved 11 weight classes for the tournament, and more than 160 girls are certified to compete.
Flathead and Glacier boast two of the biggest teams in the state, with nearly 20 girls on each roster. They also have the most ranked athletes heading into the state with 10 Bravettes and six Wolfpack wrestlers in the top six statewide. Here’s a look at some of the top wrestlers in the valley.
Audrey Goodsell, Jr.
152 pounds (2-4)
Before Audrey Goodsell got to her first wrestling competition, she looked up her opponent, Flathead’s Aleeya Derlatka, a competitor with a full year of experience wrestling against boys and girls.
“I did a head and arm, just went for it, and you’re not supposed to do that unless they’re tired,” Goodsell recounted with a bit of a laugh. “She just swung with it and pinned me. It was awful because it was like 27 seconds.”
It was actually a mere 13 seconds, and the experience has stayed with Goodsell all season
“I started listening to the coaches and trusting them and myself,” she said. “Against these girls with experience, I have to just not worry about what they know or what they’ve been through and get into a positive mindset about what I can do.”
Goodsell also runs track and cross country for the Wolfpack, but loves the attitude and physicality of wrestling.
“You never get shamed for being aggressive,” she said. “It’s so satisfying because you get out of it what you put in and no one will shame you for having a good strong effort and getting after it.”
The sports’ meteoric rise in popularity this year gives Goodsell some hope that more colleges will start women’s teams and further girls’ opportunities for discovering it.
“This is an opportunity to make my name in something,” Goodsell said. “It’s the start of history.”
Maya Smith, Fr.
126 pounds (2-1)
Freshman Maya Smith, like most girls competing at the state tournament this weekend, is new to the sport of wrestling. But she’s not without her own experience.
“I’ve always been doing combat sports, so I did Jiu Jitsu before this,” Smith said. “I thought this was such an opportunity as the first year for girls wrestling, and now it’s my whole goal for this year to do well at state.”
In her two years competing in Jiu Jitsu, Smith finished top three in the state, and acknowledges that the experience gives her an edge on the mats.
“It’s really similar, but it’s interesting to see the different mat styles and moves that everyone does,” Smith said. “This is a lot more physical, as in, you get punched in the face sometimes when someone’s trying to get you in a headlock. I’ve been hit more times here than I have in Jiu Jitsu, so that’s always fun.”
Even with her background in grappling sports, Smith said her first competition was nerve wracking.
“I remember walking onto the mat and making eye contact with my opponent, and you could just see that we were both nervous,” Smiths said. “But there was also a spark of excitement, and then we just went at it.”
While she lost that first match, Smith has been working hard to improve. In addition to practice at the school, she will go home and spend up to two more hours working out and shadow wrestling at home — anything to get an extra edge.
“It’s a very aggressive, hardcore sport,” Smith said. “A lot of people have quit, but the people that are still here are definitely keepers. They’re definitely fighters.”
Jessalyn Hewitt, So.
138 pounds (4-1)
“I’ve been wanting to wrestle for a while, even before there was a dedicated girls team,” Glacier sophomore Jessalyn Hewitt said. “I always wanted to do more aggressive sports, like football and hockey, so I saw this as the perfect opportunity.”
Hewitt seized the opportunity and in the first Glacier-Flathead crosstown wrestling dual, she was the only Wolfpack wrestler to score, pinning her opponent.
“I had these scary butterflies in my stomach so I was already out of breath when I got to the mat, which is not good,” Hewitt said. “But being the first pin for my girls wrestling team was super cool.”
The Wolfpack as a whole have improved, evident by their subsequent showings against Flathead, and Hewitt attributes a lot of it to the team dynamic.
“We’re just working hard and we’re getting it,” Hewitt said. “We’re growing so close as a team and we’re improving — now we get more than half the pins in matches and that’s exciting as a team.”
Hewitt is ranked No. 2 in her weight class, behind undefeated Mariah Wahl from Cut Bank.
“I’ve just got to stay like I was the first match, and not get a big head, and I’ll be ready for it,” Hewitt said.
Hania Halverson, Jr.
113 pounds (4-1)
Hania Halverson will enter next week’s state tournament as one of the most experienced wrestlers in the state of Montana — this is her fifth season on the mats. Halverson was a state qualifier in Oregon before moving to Kalispell to become part of the inaugural women’s wrestling season in Montana.
“I’m really happy for Montana as a state to be at this point in women’s wrestling,” Halverson said. “I’m just really excited to be a part of history. We might not realize it right now, but it’s kind of a big deal — it’s like the first ever football team in the country. It’s just crazy.”
Halverson picked up the sport in middle school as part of a family passion. Her father wrestled, as did her older brother and sister, and after an unsuccessful attempt to play basketball, she followed suit.
“The first couple years were not so good, because I was brand new and still learning, but once you start figuring out your moves, you just see so much progress,” Halverson said. “And it just feels really rewarding to get a good workout in and you are honestly in the best shape during wrestling season.”
Halverson has only recorded one loss this season, to Rebecca Stroh from Chinook, and plans to get through the state tournament one match at a time.
“The thing about wrestling is you can get caught in anything, so you can’t go in cocky or complacent,” she said. “So one match at a time really, but yeah, state champion is a goal, and for the whole team. We’ve got the numbers and a good attitude.”
Bella Arriaga, Jr.
126 pounds (6-1)
Bella Arriaga was 11 the first time she wrestled.
“I think I tried it for like a month, and it just didn’t stick,” Arriaga said.
After years as a multisport athlete — Arriaga is a dancer, soccer player and track athlete — she gave wrestling another go last summer when the girls season was officially announced.
“I’m just having a lot of fun and it’s insane to me that this is only the first year and it’s so popular,” Arriaga said. “It’s been a really good season for my first one.”
The first time she stepped on the mat this season was during in a dual against Glacier, where Arriaga used to attend school.
“I was super nervous, but there was a lot of adrenaline and my brain was a little fogged in,” she said.
Even fogged in, Arriaga was one of the Bravettes to score points in that first match, pinning her opponent in under 90 seconds.
Since then, she has been on a tear, including a statewide mixer in January where she recorded three wins, and her only loss of the season was to Lily Shubarth of Simms. Arriaga will enter the state tournament as the No. 3 wrestler in her weight class.
“I’ve progressed every week,” she said. “It’s like coach Thompson always says, you want to get 1% better every single day you wrestle, and I’m doing that.”
Aleeya Derlatka, Sr.
145 pounds (8-1)
Aleeya Derlatka’s first match this season lasted 13 seconds.
During the rest of January, when many girls in the state were still figuring out the ins and outs of the new sport, Derlatka was flexing her strength and experience on the mat.
Derlatka won five straight during an all-state mixer. She’s currently 8-1 on the season so far and has held the No. 1 ranking in her weight class all season long.
“My confidence and wrestling has just gotten better this year,” Derlatka, who was one of six girl wrestlers for Flathead last year, said. “Honestly a big part has just been getting comfortable touching and wrestling other people.”
As one of the veteran wrestlers on the team, Derlatka said she’s aware that there are a lot of eyes on her when she’s in the spotlight.
“Even though I’ve only lost one match, it’s a little scary because anything can happen,” she said.
Derlatka has a vocal cord dysfunction, where her throat can start to close up. It happened once in a match and she panicked, leading to her one loss of the season.
“I’ve got to just learn to calm myself down, because my main competition is just with myself,” Derlatka said. “It’s embarrassing to have to call a match or to ask for my inhaler.”
“I’ve been going harder at practice and doing extra work to make sure I’m ready for state,” she continued. “As long as I can get through a match, honestly it’s a win for me.”
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