WWNO – New Orleans Public Radio | By Joseph King
On a Saturday evening in mid-October, a standing-room-only crowd packs the James W. Wilson Jr. Gymnasium at Huntingdon College to witness history.
The wrestling team at the liberal arts school in Montgomery, Alabama, is hosting its annual Scarlet and Gray intra-squad scrimmage to kick off the season with a new addition — a women’s team.
Across 17 matches, the 11 women split into two teams and held an “intense live practice,” as sophomore Shelby Fugate described it. Fugate used the scrimmage to work on perfecting her favorite move.
“A Granby is where you roll out, and you can either roll out while grabbing something on [the opponent] or just roll out to escape something,” Fugate, a native of Fort Mitchell, Alabama, said following her match. “In folk style, I use it a lot. To get a pin, I would roll out from bottom and get on top.”
For many on the team, like Fugate, the season kickoff was the start of a dream come true.
“I’ve wanted to wrestle since I was in kindergarten or first grade,” she said. “My sister wrestled, and after she started that, my entire family started wrestling.”
The Hawks’ fielding of the NCAA Division III team is a first for Alabama and the rest of the Gulf South, with no other programs operating in Louisiana, Mississippi or Florida. With over 150 women’s collegiate wrestling programs in North America, the National Wrestling Coaches Association says the sport is the fastest growing in the U.S. right now, but that number gets significantly smaller the deeper you go into the southern part of the country.
Huntingdon’s athletic director, Eric Levanda, said he was inspired to start the women’s wrestling program after seeing the growth of the sport at the high school level. He also said he knew that other schools would look at the women’s wrestling program at Huntingdon when thinking about starting a team of their own.
“If we are going to do it, we’re going to do it right,” he said. To be the first women’s collegiate program in the state, we want to be a magnet for girls that want to take the sport seriously.”
Hawks’ coach Lillian Humphries, who leads the women’s wrestling team, knows what it’s like to be part of a trailblazing team. Before coaching, she wrestled at Presbyterian College in South Carolina where she was a member of the first Division I women’s wrestling program in NCAA history.
During her time both as a player and a coach, Humphries has witnessed the disparities between men’s and women’s programs — issues such as women having to get dressed for matches in a restroom or being the only woman wrestler on her high school team — and is appreciative of the buy-in she’s seen from Huntingdon College’s athletic department.
“I got hired on June 1 of 2022, and by June 9, they started building our women’s locker room, which is a huge investment,” she said.
Humphries spent her first year on the job without an important part of the team — wrestlers. She used that time to recruit and build relationships with her athletes.
Shonticia Taft, a freshman from Marietta, Georgia, sees her time on the team as a chance to be a trailblazer, just like her coach.
As one of only two Black women on the team, she feels an added sense of pressure to prove herself more, but also to encourage other young Black women who are interested in getting on the mat but find themselves wrestling with the idea.
Humphries’ relationship-building also impressed eventual team members like Tristin Robinson.
“I had the chance to visit some other colleges, too, and seeing those colleges made me realize how much I really do love Huntingdon,” Robinson, a freshman from Dothan, Alabama, said. “I love how the staff really cares about you.”
Robinson is relatively new to the sport — she started wrestling in 10th grade when her high school’s women’s program formed — but loves the feeling of exhaustion and reward after a match or training session.
“I love competing, I love working hard, and I like feeling like I’m dying sometimes and then being able to — at the end of it — be like I just did that and I’m proud of myself for that,” Robinson said.
Robinson said her love for wrestling was cultivated by her father, Travis Robinson, who was present at the scrimmage. He is excited to cheer his daughter on and see how the Hawks stack up against the other teams they face, but he also wants to see the sport continue to grow regionally.
“I want everybody to get onboard just like they would for Alabama football,” he said.
The Huntingdon Hawks’ next time on the mat, and their first official match, will be on Nov. 11 in Georgia against the Life University Eagles.