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Wrestling: Warriors wrestling sees a boom to first-year program

18 girls in grades 5-8 joined the first year of the Brainerd Warriors girls' wrestling program.

Girls Wrestling
Forestview students Ariana Pickar, left, and Maggie Bernu wrestle Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, at the school.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BAXTER — Despite being a sixth-grader, Ariana Pickar’s background in wrestling goes back generations.

Annika Dalzell’s knowledge of the sport goes back to eight practices ago.

While a knowledge gap exists between the two Brainerd Warriors, their excitement to be part of the Brainerd School District’s first girls' wrestling program is on par.

“I was excited to be able to enjoy the sport that I enjoy,” Ariana Pickar said. “It’s fun to know that there are other girls who want to do this sport, too.”

Pickar is the daughter of two-time state champion Andy Pickar who finished his high school career at Brainerd with a record of 146-25. It was the older Pickar who helped make sure there was a girls' program at Brainerd two years after the Minnesota State High School League agreed to sanction the sport and host a state tournament.

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Ariana Pickar wrestled in Brainerd’s elementary program, but was concerned about wrestling boys as she got older. She won’t have to worry anymore nor will the 17 other girls in grades 5-8 who joined the program in its inaugural year.

“This is exciting because growing up there were maybe one or two girls at tournaments,” Pickar said. “Now there are more. It’s exciting because I’ve never really seen that many girls in one spot for a sport.”

Wrestling is all brand new for Dalzell who also plays soccer. She was looking for something a bit more physical and her mom mentioned wrestling.

“When I first got here, I saw the boys doing some kind of amount of push-ups and I got a little scared, but it is kind of what I imagined,” Dalzell said. “We were just warming up and practicing, but I think it was the second week we started and we had matches. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Girls Wrestling
Forestview students Elizabell Cox, left, Serenity Krebsbach wrestle Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, at the school.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

She called the first few practices difficult, but said it’s fun being physical.

“It’s a really fun and physical sport, but it’s one of those sports where you can’t be afraid to shoot,” Dalzell said. “Your odds of winning would be a little bit lower. I’m not really aggressive. I did get told to be more aggressive in my last meet.”

The kindling for the girls’ program sparked last spring. Brainerd teacher and wrestling coach Layne Danielson was approached by Pickar about starting the program. Danielson’s first reaction was he thought it could take off.

I’ll ask them how they’re feeling and they’ll say, ‘I’m really sore’ and I’ll them ‘me too.’ But they keep coming back for it.
Layne Danielson

The plan was to build it from the middle school up to varsity.

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“I’m a recruiter,” Danielson said. “I like to get kids out and expose the sport so other people were initially thinking five or six girls. I told them I wanted to do it for at least 10. Getting to 18 was a little higher than I thought we would get for the first year. Now I have goals for doubling it in size for next year as we get more exposure to this and more matches. I think we’re going to get more people as they see what it’s like.”

When Danielson agreed to coach in August he didn’t have uniforms or warm-ups so he approached the Brainerd Sports Boosters. He explained what he needed and how many he needed. He predicted 12 to 15 warm-ups. The club told him to think bigger.

“They were shaking their head at me and I was thinking they didn’t want to help,” Danielson said. “They said, ‘No, you need to shoot higher. And they said we’re going to do 20. They were right and I was wrong. I should have ordered even more.”

Brainerd competed in its first-ever girls-only tournament Dec. 17 in Bemidji. Danielson brought six of the 18 girls to the tournament. His eyes lit up as he explained there were 300 girls wrestling in the tournament.

“It was a really neat atmosphere and there was some really good wrestling,” he said.

Girls Wrestling
Anilyse Bundy, left, and Avery Horsman wrestle Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Danielson admitted the experience and talent level among the 18 girls was wide. He had to adjust his coaching style from middle school boys. He said repetition has been key, but was surprised at how fast the girls picked up the moves and techniques.

He described himself as an over planner for practices, but said he gets through his entire plan with time to spare.

“There is a big difference between the boys and girls because there aren’t a lot of habits to change on them,” Danielson said. “A lot of them haven’t wrestled before. A lot of these girls, there is some background in wrestling. Their grandpa or dad or cousin wrestled. There is probably a handful that doesn’t have that, but for most, there is some sort of background to it. They do learn quickly.”

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How the program grows into a varsity sport has yet to be determined. Danielson will sit with all the activities directors and wrestling coaches and decide on a plan, but the excitement is only growing. Danielson hopes the girls' program remains separate from the boys' team because he feels the girls would be more confident and comfortable.

“If you have a young lady who has some interest and you’re in K-4 I’d get them into the elementary program now just to get that exposure to it,” Danielson said. “They can start at any age. I’m hoping next year, we get some ninth, 10th, 11th grade and even some seniors as we see where we can go and what we have for space.

“Even at the middle school, whenever we have a meet here, there are a dozen girls watching. You can join any time. This is one of those things like riding a bicycle. The more you do it the better you get. The sooner you get at it the better, but we’re wide open and hoping to see even more this year.”

The feedback has been motivating for Danielson who said he’s exhausted when he gets home. He struggles to sleep at night because he’s so excited about what he can do at practice the next day. but when he walks into his home a smile is on his face. His wife said she’s never seen her husband so happy coaching before.

“I get a lot of ‘my daughter loves this,’” Danielson said. “Or ‘my daughter is sick and she’s really sad she’s missing practice.’ They’re coming to practice and I do not have attendance issues. They’re enjoying it and they’re coming back to practice the next day and I’ll ask them how they’re feeling and they’ll say, ‘I’m really sore’ and I’ll them ‘me too.’ But they keep coming back for it.”

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or jeremy.millsop@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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