Five months ago, Arcadia High Wrestling Coach Clifford Nafrada wasn’t sure if he would even be able to get enough girls interested to participate in the sport. By February, he was coaching the new AHS girls wrestling team at the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) State Championships.
“This sport is my passion, and it’s been a blessing to be able to share it with more young people, especially with those who previously didn’t have an ‘equal’ entry into it,” Nafrada explained.
Five students from Arcadia High School’s new girls wrestling team placed third in a girls-only invitational in January. The team of beginners, who had been practicing for less than two months before the competition, outranked eight other regional teams. This placement earned the team a spot at the state qualifying tournament, where four girls competed: junior Aaliyah Terrazas, senior Fernanda Moreno, freshman Raya Christiansen, and junior Cameron Sanchez.
At the end, Terrazas, Moreno and Christiansen qualified for the state championships.
While team scores are not recognized yet at the state level, the sport is growing fast. All ten weight classes at the championships were full with 16 girls signed up in each.
“The AIA made girls wrestling an emerging sport, with an eye on making it a full-fledged team sport in the next couple of years,” Nafrada said. “Last year, the emphasis was to gauge interest, and this year it’s about determining the best ruleset to use going forward,” Nafrada said.
It wasn’t until the start of the 2019-20 season that Nafrada found out that the AIA was going to make girls wrestling an official sport. The boys wrestling team, which was restarted in 2018, began its season in the first week of November, but Nafrada was uncertain about interest for the girls team.
Once the word was out, it didn’t take long for girls to inquire about joining. As the boys started practices for the season, Nafrada was wrapping up talks with seven girls who would become the first members of the Lady Titans wrestling team. The girls started regular practices in early December.
“It’s worth noting that our athletic department, the boys’ coaches, the school community, and the parents have been nothing but supportive of our girls,” Nafrada said.
He also emphasized that this support was the key to the team’s early achievement, noting that help from Athletic Director Rudy Alvarado, Head Coach Aaron Simpson, volunteer Coach Christian Pagdilao and the encouragement of the school’s teachers, administration and staff were integral for launching the program and grooming the girls for success.
“The girls have become more of a family than a team in a very short amount of time,” Nafrada said.
Sophomore Kaitlyn Kelly echoes the idea of the team working as a family.
“I appreciate the love and support my teammates have given me, and I look forward to doing this again next year,” Kelly said.
According to Nafrada, growth in the sport has been “exponential,” from having only one or two girls on teams three years ago to having over 80 schools bringing at least one girl in the AIA Girls State Championships in 2020. He added that only 284 girls participated in sectional tournaments in 2019, and in 2020, 434 participated.
“Our returnees are ready to get back in the wrestling room; they’re ready to start trying to bring other girls into the room,” Nafrada said. “We weren’t able to author that storybook ending to our season, but we know we still have a few more chapters to write in our story.”