What happened to Abby Stanberry on Friday night was beyond her wildest dreams.
Abby, a Jackson Memorial freshman whose father was a wrestler back in his high school days, never figured on following in his footsteps. But that all changed this fall, when the NJSIAA approved girls wrestling as an official sport. New Jersey is now the 14th state in the nation to offer girls wrestling, and is also the first in the the Mid-Atlantic region to do so.
Stanberry went out for the team, made it, and then found herself in a historical situation when the Jaguars traveled to Manalapan for the first all-girls dual match in New Jersey.
Stanberry really had no idea what to expect. She didn’t know how she would fare in her 161-pound bout, and wasn’t even sure if anyone would show to watch it. But in the end, she wound up going home with memories that will last a lifetime.
The gym at Manalapan was packed with fans from both schools, and it was also very vocal. And then, if being a participant in the historic match wasn’t thrilling enough, she learned that her bout would be the first one.
“I was nervous,” she said. “I had no idea what this was going to be like. I was freaking out last night and in class. And this turnout blew my mind.”
Her match almost ended prematurely, when an arm injury early on required a medical time out. But she kept her composure, continued on, and with the Jackson Memorial fans chanting her name, won with a pin in 3:13. After the referee raised her arm as the winner, she jogged back to her team’s bench with a big smile, and was mobbed by her new teammates and coaches while the Jackson fan contingent gave her a standing ovation.
“I was nervous, but I fought through it,” she said. “And I fought hard. It was so much fun. It gets a lot of anger out.”
Stanberry learned about perseverance after the injury early in the match.
“She slammed my elbow and my arm went numb,” Stanberry said. “So I kind of freaked out for a little bit. They were like ‘Do you want to still go?’ And of course I wanted to keep going. She hurt me, so I hurt her back and I pinned her. It felt amazing.”
The opening bout kicked off a match that Jackson Memorial won, 30-21. Long-term wrestling observers on hand were impressed by the aggressiveness of the girls on both sides. There were nine bouts, and eight of them were decided by pins.
Manalapan dressed 16 girls, and Jackson Memorial brought 12. Some are complete newcomers to the sport, which showed even during the Lehigh intros, while others - most notably Jess Johnson, the 147-pounder from Manalapan, had plenty of experience.
Stanberry was somewhere in between.
“I had wrestled before, but only against guys,” she said. “This is my first year actually wrestling. I’ve wanted to do it since middle school, but my parents were like ‘Uh, not really.’ But then this came around and they told me to go for it. This felt fantastic, to have people supporting me like that, and then when they started to chant my name, I knew I had to do this now and that I had to end it.”
Johnson was one of two Manalapan wrestlers (along with Angelina Vitola) who competed on the boys team last year. Her prior girls’ experience includes a fourth-place finish last summer at the Cadet Nationals in North Dakota. The fifth-year wrestler pinned her opponent in 1:03.
“This was really fun and I’m glad we were the first ones to do it,” Johnson said. “It was so cool that everyone was cheering us on, because this is so new. We didn't really expect this much to happen. I think this will really take off. Even a lot of girls in my school, after this all started, they really got interested in it. It’s a big talk now and I think next year and, and in the ones after, it can get really huge.”
The other participants in the historic match were Gianna Tandari, Avery Meyers, Kayla Gregory, Brandi Rado, Skyelar Smith, Alley Mayer, Jordan Katz and Shannon Stroud of Jackson Memorial and Trinity Valentin-Walczak, Julia Manolas, Alexandra Urbanek, Alyssa Curcio, Ruba Abou Chakra, Samantha Albujar, Olivia Delgado and Sabrina Maniscalco of Manalapan.
There was one other thing made this match different than all in New Jersey that preceded it. After it was all over, the wrestlers from both sides posed for a photo, huddled, and then broke it up by yelling “1-2-3, Girls Wrestling!”
"It’s about these 10 or 11 girls from each team that took the mat tonight, because they really put themselves out there,” said Jackson Memorial coach Doug Withstandley, who also noted he put the girls through the exact same pre-season paces as his Jackson male wrestlers. “I can’t imagine the courage it took them to be the pioneers in not only the Shore Conference, but in the State of New Jersey. The ball is rolling for women’s wrestling now. If there are any people out there who doubt it, shame on them. These girls can wrestle. They’re aggressive, and they went after each other. They represented their schools and the sport well.”