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South Valley Riverton Journal

Excitement building for Mountain Ridge girls wrestling

Dec 01, 2023 11:08AM ● By Josh McFadden

The Mountain Ridge girls wrestling team placed fifth in state last season and returns several experienced competitors this year. (Photo courtesy Brandon Birch)

Girls wrestling has only been a sanctioned high school sport in Utah since 2020, but momentum is already building for the sport at Mountain Ridge. 

The Sentinels continue to attract girls to their squad, as numbers for this year’s team are higher than ever. 

“This is my third year as a girls head wrestling coach,” head coach Brandon Birch said. “It's amazing to see the progress every year in girls wrestling. Numbers are skyrocketing, and competition is increasing." 

Birch said a big reason for the interest is that girls have more options than ever before to compete in the sport after high school. 

“There are opportunities now for girls to get college scholarships in wrestling and compete at the college level, and every year I have more and more girls that are gaining interest in competing at the next level,” he said. “The first year I coached, it was very difficult to recruit anybody, but now that we have some established girls wrestlers, and people are seeing and hearing about how girls can actually wrestle, I am now seeing girls come in on their own wanting to wrestle because they see that it's just like any other girls sport, and not just a boys sport. Very exciting.”

But it isn’t just newcomers who are filling spots on the mat for the Sentinels. Each year, more and more girls are coming with experience. 

“When I started 3 years ago, there were three girls out of my 13 who had one year of wrestling experience,” Birch said. “This year, I have 16 girls with at least one year of experience and four with multiple years of experience out of 29 right now.”

Four wrestlers are back for Mountain Ridge who placed at the 2023 girls wrestling tournament. Karlie Bishop, a sophomore at the 100-pound class, was fourth in state a year ago. Maddi Fulks, a junior, was third in state at the 170-pound class last season. Olivia Merino, a sophomore wrestling in the 145-pound group, was sixth a year ago at state. Junior Eva Newland placed sixth at state last season. A fifth returner, senior Cedar Curtis, was sixth at the state tournament in 2022 but took last season off. 

Sophomores Sadie Ashton (130 pounds), Naidelyn Lucio (145 pounds) and Eden Hunt (110 pounds) are others Birch is counting on to qualify for state once again, as they did a year ago. Juniors McKenna Housekeeper (125 pounds), Danae Fisher (125 pounds), Gloria Jessop (120 pounds), Vanhessa Vu (115 pounds), Hannah Whitlock (235 pounds) and Gabi Merino (155 pounds) also qualified for state last season and are back to bolster the Sentinels this year. 

Birch loves how hard the girls work and how they work well together.

“They work hard together, support each other and push each other in the wrestling room,” he said. “They are great scholar-athletes and have a desire to be as good as they possibly can. They teach and mentor our new wrestlers at the same time, so they have the same mindset. They are not afraid to go out and try their hardest, and they are not afraid of pushing through to the last whistle.”

Birch said team unity is the Sentinels’ biggest strength. The girls genuinely like one another and love competing with one another. 

“We like each other and want to see everyone succeed,” he said. “We have the kind of team where, after a tough match, win or lose, I have half the team lining up to high-five, hug or show support in one way or another. It's fantastic.”

Birch admits there is a stigma against girls wrestling, with some people believing it is a boys-only sport. He said multiple girls have wanted to wrestle on the team but have declined because of friends shaming them or parents forbidding it, stating that it is a boys’ sport. 

But Mountain Ridge is moving forward, undeterred and eager to improve on what was a solid season a year ago. 

“Our goals and expectations this year are to go out and wrestle our best and get better each day,” Birch said. “We placed fifth in state the last two years, and feel like we have gotten even better, so we hope to do even better this year.”

Birch also credits his coaching staff— Zan Elder, Jim Birch, Melanie Thornhill and Paris Bowen—for the team’s success and improvement. 

“Honestly, it's been great to have the opportunity to be a part of something that has been so great and to help build what I think will be a solid competitive sport for years to come,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better, more fun, tight-knit team to be around.” λ