When Augsburg University’s women’s wrestling team begins its season on Saturday, it does so with a completely blank slate.
The program is the only varsity collegiate wrestling team for women in Minnesota, and it’s new this year. Saturday’s competition at Waldorf University in Iowa will be the team’s first.
Of the 10 Augsburg wrestlers, most are first-years, including Vayle-rae Baker from Pennsylvania.
“I feel like it's my art,” Baker said of wrestling. “It's what I love to do. I get to have my own style, I get to have my own performances when I go out and wrestle. And it's the bonds that you make, and the connections. It's like a family.”
Baker’s teammate, sophomore Bel Snyder, grew up in a wrestling family but initially played basketball at Wadena-Deer Creek High School in central Minnesota.
“My brother wrestled, and I remember taking him to practice, and I knew all the kids in wrestling, I was related to half of them,” Snyder said. “And I remember sitting in the weight room and being like, ‘What am I doing? I should be in there right now.’”
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Snyder wrestled against boys in high school, an experience common among her teammates. For college, she attended a university in North Dakota that had a women’s team, but the school wasn’t a good fit.
When she decided to transfer, she said leaving wrestling was the hardest part. Then she heard Augsburg was starting a program back in Minnesota.
“It's just really cool because now I get to be in my home state,” Snyder said. “Minneapolis is a really great area to be in, and my teammates are like my sisters, and [head coach Max Mejia] and the other coaches, they support me like no other.”
Augsburg may be the only Minnesota school with a collegiate women’s wrestling program, but it isn’t the first. The University of Minnesota Morris had a team but dropped it 15 years ago along with its men’s wrestling program.
Since then, the number of high school girls in the sport has risen nearly five-fold nationwide, to more than 20,000 wrestlers last year. But most states, including Minnesota, don’t have a separate championship for girls high school wrestling.
At the college level, women’s wrestling isn’t an NCAA championship sport, either – although in a first step, the NCAA could soon name it an emerging sport, similar to women’s rugby and triathlon.
This year, more than 50 schools are fielding women’s collegiate teams, according to the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association. Sixteen more have said they’ll start programs next year.
“With the rise in women's wrestling, it just seemed logical,” said Augsburg athletic director Jeff Swenson. He said the school was out front in launching other women’s programs, like hockey and lacrosse. Plus, the Augsburg men’s wrestling team is a Division III powerhouse — it’s clinched 13 national titles.
“Jamestown, Waldorf and Stevens Point added just before us,” Swenson said. “So, there was a wide range around Minnesota of programs that had women's wrestling, and it seemed like it was there was right timing for a women's wrestling program.”
Augsburg announced the program in April, as college decision deadlines loomed, and this season, the team is small. Coach Mejia says the teams they’ll compete against might have three times as many wrestlers.
“Are we small? Yeah,” Mejia said. “For a first-year program, I think we did great in two months to get that many girls here that fit what we were looking for.”
One of the 10 women on the team is Maple Grove native Emily Shilson, who was named the top female recruit in the country this year by the wrestling site The Open Mat.
“I feel like people are kind of sleeping on us a little bit just because we're a first-year program,” Shilson said. “But we have a ton of hammers in here, and honestly, I expect to win a national title this year as a team.”