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Wrestling: Girls Make History At PJWs

March 24, 2018 GMT

WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Madison Healey’s time on the mat Friday went by as quickly as her rise up the state ranks.

It was only about a year ago that Healey, a Valley West student, was wrestling for the fun of it before her brother’s practices got started in the Pittston Area elementary program. Coach Hank Aftewicz recalls trying to persuade her into actually trying the sport, but she would shy away from the mat once practice started.

Healey eventually gave wrestling a shot and, without much coaching, entered a tournament and won. She kept coming back to the Aftewicz’s program.

The wins kept coming for Healey on Friday, and fast.

At the opening rounds of the 56th Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling youth championships — the first year the event is hosting girls tournaments — Healey won by fall in 47 seconds and then 14 seconds. Healey, an 8-and-under 45-pounder, was among the first winners in PJW girls tournament history, and she returns today to Mohegan Sun Arena with a chance to become one of the tournament’s first girls state champions.

“She wants to someday wrestle in the Olympics. If that’s not driven, I don’t know what is,” Aftewicz said between Healey’s two pins. “We’re just super proud of her. We enjoy having her in the room, and she’s a pleasure to coach.

“She’s coachable. She has all the things that we need as a wrestler — not a girl or a boy — but as a wrestler.”

PJW’s youth state tournament consists of boys champions and runners-up, and now girls champions, from its 14 areas. By the end of tonight’s finals, scheduled for 5, eight boys and four girls per weight class will earn medals in three age groups.

Area 12 covers the northeast corner of the state, and three of its state qualifiers are Wyoming Valley wrestlers who still have state titles in their sights. Along with Healey, Pittston’s Nicholas Innamorati and Ethan Aftewicz advanced to the 8-and-under tourney’s 65- and 75-pound semifinals, respectively.

Wrestlers like Innamorati and Ethan Aftewicz are getting their 56th chance to win PJW titles, and girls are finally getting their time on the arena floor, too. The new tournament is the sport’s latest evolution in the region, coming roughly a year after Wyoming Seminary added a girls team to it’s nationally-known wrestling program.

Hank Aftewicz called the new opportunity “phenomenal” not just for the girls wrestling now, but for the future of the sport’s popularity. An influx of women in wrestling has “been a long time coming,” the former Hanover Area wrestler said.

“I really don’t think it’s something that just happened,” Aftewicz said. “I think these girls have been working really hard for a long time, and now we’re putting a spotlight on them. We’re giving them that platform to shine.”

As Lake-Lehman coach Reggie Gensel put it, “There’s always girls in the bleachers watching. Now they got an opportunity to do it.”

Gensel coaches Lexia Schechterly, who starts today in the 11-12 age group’s 85-pound consolations.

He said she stopped by her own brother’s practice once, tried out wrestling and soon gave up basketball for her new sport. She’s also already won a prior tournament and has shown plenty of progress in the few months she’s wrestled.

Though Schecterly was pinned in the quarterfinals, she showed plenty of fight and still has a shot to earn a medal. Win or lose, the new PJW format provides her a brighter future.

“If she stays with it, she’s going to go far,” Gensel said. “She’s such a sponge. She absorbs everything; she wants to learn more. We go to tournaments, and she sits on the edge of the mat and watches other kids wrestle.”

Contact the writer: eshultz@citizensvoice.com; 570-821-2054; @CVEricShultz on Twitter