That is now evident in Chautauqua County.
Last season, Chautauqua Lake was one of three female wrestling varsity teams in New York State and the only girls-only team in Section VI. However, now there are over 35 girls wrestling programs across the state, with four teams in Section VI, including two in Chautauqua County this year. Joining Chautauqua Lake this season is Fredonia, who adds to a list that includes Orchard Park and a Niagara-Frontier League team in Section VI.
“We’re excited to have it at Fredonia,” Conti said of the newly-formed Fredonia team. “I really like our squad of kids. We’ve really had a good time.”
The two pioneer programs in Chautauqua County will share the stage on Wednesday as Fredonia travels to Chautauqua Lake for the first girls-only dual meet in Section VI history.
Fredonia boasts 15 girls on its female wrestling roster this season, with 12 who have competed so far. Conti hopes to have close to 25 female wrestlers next year.
“Most of the girls we have, this is a really new thing for them,” said Conti. “They are learning, they are coming along. This is a tough endeavor, and they are getting the hang of that.”
The Lady ‘Billies are a diverse group of wrestlers, including various other extracurriculars on their resumes.
“It’s great that a lot of these girls are involved in things like orchestra, dance, and all these other things,” said Conti. “You don’t want your team to be one-dimensional.”
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association is in the process of making girls wrestling a fully-sanctioned sport statewide. This year, a non-sanctioned tournament, the Girls Wrestling Invitational, is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 27 at the SRC Arena and Events Center in Syracuse. New York is among 37 states to feature female wrestling at the high school level.
Another member of the Conti family, Alex Conti, played an instrumental role in organizing female wrestling in New York State. In 2018, Alex Conti was named as the Section VI girls wrestling director.
Alex Conti, a member of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame, served as a U.S. women’s wrestling coach for various international events since 2008. He was named a U.S. Women’s World Team coach in 2014. He helped guide the team to a third place finish at the World Championships. He was also part of the American coaching staff for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a team that included Olympic Bronze Medalist Clarissa Chun.
“If it wasn’t for him, we’d be behind the 8 ball,” Ross Conti said of Alex. “He’s the one that got me to coach the team.”
Ross Conti, who also leads Fredonia’s girls golf program, joked, “I coach the two most opposite sports you can coach.”
Though the team itself is new this year, Fredonia has a deep history of female wrestling success. The Hillbillies wrestling program has supported many female wrestlers over the years, including Carlene Sluberski, the first female wrestler to ever place at the NY State wrestling championships. Sluberski was coached at Fredonia by Alex Conti.
“(Her success) goes to show you the sport needed to have equal footing,” said Ross Conti.
Sluberski was appointed to lead a new women’s wrestling program at D’Youville University earlier this year. She has already been recruiting for the new program to begin competition in 2023-24.
Another former Fredonia female wrestler to find success on the mats was Maggie Mignoli, who won the 132-pound girls championship at the inaugural Girls Invitational wrestling tournament at Niagara County Community College in February of 2019. Mignoli won both of her matches without her opponent registering a point, including a pinfall victory and an 11-0 decision. Sections II through VI were represented at the event. “It’s pretty exciting to be a pioneer, to be the first in part of a movement,” Fredonia wrestling coach Joe Santilli told the OBSERVER after the event.
Although only two girls wrestling programs are currently sustained at the varsity level in Chautauqua County, Fredonia and Chautauqua Lake are not alone in the development of female wrestling.
The Dunkirk City School District has also supported female wrestlers at the varsity level on the Marauders boys wrestling team. Female wrestlers at Dunkirk also compete in girls-only tournaments.
However, moving forward, Dunkirk believes it can sustain a female wrestling varsity team of its own, as the district recently approved the creation of a modified girls wrestling team.
“I definitely think it’s something that we can sustain moving forward here at Dunkirk,” said Dunkirk Athletic Director Al Gens.
As is also the case with Girls Flag Football, which is also growing rapidly in the area, Gens believes there are many opportunities for higher education to athletes involved in the sport.
With the growth of the sport throughout Chautauqua County and statewide, Ross Conti believes girls wrestling will be sustainable for years to come. He feels the opportunity the sport of wrestling provides to athletes is more than just the aspect of physical fitness, but also mental and emotional growth.
“It gives them a chance to experience something different than what they’re used to,” Ross Conti said. “This is a chance for them to do something to give them empowerment and confidence.”