“Priscilla, how are you doing in wrestling?” say some boys when they see Mission High freshman Priscilla Quinteros in the halls. “I could slam you.”
Come to practice, she dares — show off what you’ve got. No one has.
Quinteros’ size (5’2”), loud giggle and penchant for wearing socks with hot pink stars on them makes some people doubt her ability to wrestle anyone to the ground.
But Quinteros, a member of Mission High’s co-ed wrestling squad, knows what she’s doing. One of her older brothers, David Ortiz, is a coach for the team, and another brother, Christopher Quinteros, is her teammate. Growing up with boys who wrestle, she says, has made her “a pretty rough girl.”
When boys from other schools find out they’ll be wrestling a girl, “I see them get nervous,” Quinteros says. “They don’t want to hurt me.”
Quinteros is one of five girls, out of 24 players total, who have found their way onto the Mission High wrestling team. Three years ago, Olena Kononovych showed up, straight from the Ukraine to Mission High. So did Yada Sitiprawet, whose parents came here from Thailand by way of Miami.
Sitiprawet and Kononovych were part of a larger movement — since 1994, the number of girls on high school wresting teams has gone from 804 to more than 6,000, according to the National Coaches Wrestling Association — but they didn’t know it.
Four of the girls on Mission High’s team competed in the state qualifier tournament Saturday in San Jose. Sitiprawet and Kononovych advanced to the first-ever girls’ wrestling state championship in Sacramento, February 25-26.
“I didn’t even know wrestling was a real sport,” says Sitiprawet, now an 18-year-old senior. She had done Muay Thai and boxing, but was into skateboarding when she was recruited to the team by a security guard at the school who used to be the wrestling team’s coach.
Wrestling, says Kononovych, is what defines her. She calls the team her second family, and makes sandwiches and cookies for tournaments. “I know when they’re hungry,” says Kononovych. “And they won’t bring food — they’re guys.”
Two years later, and about to graduate, she’s one of four team captains.
Sitiprawet’s parents were horrified when she joined the team, she says. She’d come home with bruises all over her arms and legs, and they’d say, “We’re not going to pay for insurance for whatever you break.”
But she invited them to a match, and seeing her wrestle, and win, changed their minds.
Because Mission High requires a minimum 2.0 GPA for students to be involved in sports, her grades improved tremendously.
At a recent practice, Sitiprawet lays pinned beneath another wrestler with her face to the mat. In a flash, she’s out from underneath him, and he’s pinned to the ground. Several “oooohs” erupt from the boys on the sideline.
Sitiprawet says one of her proudest moments came when she defeated a boy for the first time.
But like the rest of the girls, she doesn’t always get that chance. All are in either the 103- or 112-pound weight class, and unless boys from the opposing team match the division, the girls automatically win by forfeit and take their spots on the bench. And out of the eight city schools that Mission High competed against throughout the season, only three other teams included girls. Most had just one or two on the squad; Lowell High School is the exception, with eight girls on its team.
When boys do go up against the girls, they tend to “muscle up” and use their strength instead of technique, says Sitiprawet.
This is frustrating, she says, but no matter. “If you have good technique, you can beat anybody with strength.”
Nearby, 17-year-old Winifher Vazquez has slipped off her bejeweled moccasins and set down her purple-fringed purse among the sea of used towels, sneakers and gym shorts that were strewn on the ground before practice began.
Two years ago, she watched her guy friends wrestle and thought, “I can do it, too.”
Vazquez, who’s from Peru, had tried out other sports, but she’s given her heart to wrestling, she says. She voluntarily trains at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center in the Castro once a week to become better.
Wrestling boys makes her nervous, but there’s no difference between her and the boys on the team, she says. “It’s the same. I give it my all.”
That’s just what she’s doing during a practice match when she rolls over her arm. She walks off the mat, holding her upper left shoulder. Her left hand won’t stop shaking.
Immediately, one of the captains, Jaime Loo, grabs a white towel and turns it into a sling for her arm. Ana Canenguez, a 17-year-old senior from El Salvador, rushes to her side to help pin the sling in place. Quinteros quickly leaves to get her a bag of ice. Loo stands with her for the next 20 minutes, distracting her, playfully poking her forehead and making her laugh.
Some of the girls say wrestling has kept them off the streets and gives them a safe space to let their aggression out.
“It’s a way to express when I’m mad, to get out all the bad things in a positive way,” explains Canenguez, who moved here four years ago.
Canenguez has arrived almost two hours late to practice because she’s come straight from playing soccer.
Juggling two sports hardly leaves her much time to do homework once she gets home at night, but she enjoys them both immensely, she says in a heavy accent before jogging off to join Quinteros on the mat for practice drills.
Quinteros reaches out and playfully pinches Canenguez’s cheeks just before she grabs her wrists and flips her over her back.
Such playfulness is common for the girls, says Coach Roger Brigham.
“Every time Olena pins a guy, she laughs,” he says, amused.
That’s partly because he tells the team to never take the game too seriously — to enjoy the experience.
This is, after all, high school. And it’s almost over. Kononovych has already been accepted to SF State and UC Riverside. But “that’s not enough!” she exclaims immediately, her competitive spirit seeping out. She’d like to be accepted by a few more yet.
The Navy is in Sitiprawet’s future: After she leaves Mission High, she’ll be attending boot camp in Illinois.
Quinteros, the only girl not graduating this year, will stay on the mat.
“It’s my time to show off what I’ve worked so hard for,” she says. “It feels good.”