Wrestlers Proud to Compete in Historic Girls' State Championship

Feb. 17, 2022, 2:41 p.m. ·

Wrestler Sage McCallum grimaces while wrestling an opponent with a crowd and coach in the background.
Wrestler Sage McCallum from Grand Island High School grimaces while wrestling an opponent at a tournament. (Photo by Dana Dietz)

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It's a historic week for sports in Nebraska.

Wrestler Reagan Gallaway (top) competes in the Amherst Invitational. She's on top of another wrestler on the mat with a crowd in the stands behind her.
Wrestler Reagan Gallaway (top) competes in the Amherst Invitational. (Photo by Dana Dietz)

High school boys competed in the state wrestling championships for 63 years. Girls who love the sport will compete in wrestling at the same level for the first time.

Even advocates of the sport underestimated the demand. More than 700 young women joined teams all over the state.

According to Jeff Evans, the girl's wrestling coach from Grand Island High School, "this sports program in the state, it's going to explode."

The preliminaries leading to Saturday's championship bring excitement and even emotion among wrestlers and coaches competing to be the first to reach the victor's podium.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Amherst, Nebraska, about 20 miles northwest of Kearney. It's a small town that reveres its wrestlers. With under 200 students, Amherst High School cranked out 11 boys' team state championships and 53 individual state tournament victors since 1963.

Amherst High School Girls' Wrestling Team in a huddle with their firsts raised to shoulder height.
Gallaway (center) encourages team mates from Amherst High School. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media Sports)

This year's competition set the stage for girls like Reagen Gallaway to reach a new level of success.

Amherst High School displays the names of 50 years of boys who have earned the title of state champion.

"I looked up to all the wrestlers. I looked up to the state champions,” Gallaway said.

She wrestled in club competitions, finding plenty of support from the boys and the community.

"Amherst wrestling is phenomenal," Gallaway said in an interview with Nebraska Public Media Sports. "For us girls (it's)100 percent. It's just great to be part of it."

Gallaway is a junior competing at 142 pounds. A frequent hashtag on her Instagram photos: #FearTheFarmer.

After winning two state championships in unsanctioned competitions, Amherst added her photo to the wall, a first for a female competitor.

"Oh, man. I was so stoked when I won it!" Her sentences spilled out so quickly she could barely keep up with her enthusiasm.

"I was like, 'Wow, my name's going to be down here forever. It's going to be on the wall.' And what meant the most to me is those little girls (will) be like, 'Wow, there's a girl on the wall. I can be a state champ, so if she can do it, I can do it.'"

Reagan Gallaway in a wrestling room with a mat and a wall behind her.
Amherst High School junior Reagan Gallaway. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media)
Reagen Gallaway's name on a red cut-out of the state of Nebraska. It's included among championship wrestlers.
Reagen Gallaway's name was the first girl's name to be included with the other championship wrestlers at Amherst High School. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media Sports)

Her fierce attitude intensified as the first girl's wrestling state championship approached.

"I just want to prove that I am the best here in Nebraska. I should be the best pound-per-pound girl in the state of Nebraska, and I'm willing to step on the mat and beat everybody."

Gallaway said the acknowledgment that young women could finally represent their schools and hometowns "meant the world."

She recalled the day she was scrolling through Instagram posts when she saw the announcement the NSAA had sanctioned wrestling.

I remember sitting in class, and I was looking on Instagram, and I saw a flyer that it got sanctioned. And so when I got the news, I just started crying. Everyone's like, "What's going on?" I'm like, "girls' wrestling is sanctioned. I get to wrestle down in Omaha. How cool is that?" Who wouldn't be excited about wrestling down in Omaha and winning a state title? That's been the dream of mine forever."

That enthusiasm runs through many of those participating in the first season of girls' wrestling. There has been the opportunity to build a program where none existed before for coaches.

During the pandemic, Jeff Evans left a coaching job in Los Angeles, returning to his home state and creating the first girls' wrestling team at Grand Island Senior High. The school district bought an empty insurance office, removed the cubicles, and installed wrestling mats.

"We started from scratch," Evans reminded a visitor. The members of the GISH team weren't familiar with the work ethic needed to build a successful athletic team. It's a chance to avoid the bad habits they might carry if they'd had other wrestling experiences.

"All they know is what they're fed" by the coaches. "You can establish a pretty high bar because they're like, 'okay, well that's what we're supposed to do (and) that's what wrestlers do.'"

"Anyway, it's been fun," he adds, smiling.

Grand Island HS Girls' Wrestling Practice with three girls crouching down on a wrestling mat and desks behind them.
Senior Sage McCallum runs drills at a Grand Island High School wrestling practice. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media Sports)

Thirty-three girls signed on to the inaugural team. Only one senior tried out. Early in high school, Sage McCallum ran cross country and played soccer before finding her passion in wrestling. She's one of many Nebraska girls who had never participated in the sport.

"I was just so ready to get on the mat and just learn," McCallum recalled following a recent practice. "It was definitely a shock because (while) you get physical in soccer, (wrestling) is like no other sport."

In addition to the demands on her body, "there's definitely a learning curve, but I knew I loved it right from the get-go."

Often when a high school student favors athletics, they become a familiar figure on more than one playing field. Coach Evans discovered wrestling brought out something unexpected at Grand Island High School.

Coach Jeff Evans wearing a black sweatshirt with Grand Island logo. A wrestling mat is below him and desks are in the background.
Grand Island High School wrestling coach Jeff Evans. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media Sports)
Sage McCallum points to a poster of herself with a tile wall behind her.
Grand Island HS senior Sage McCallum with the team booster poster. (Photo by GISH Wresting)

"The group that's probably been the most surprising are those girls who have never done any sports," Evans said. These are students "who have never really been involved with hardly any school activities and never found that niche."

"It means everything to these girls," said McCallum, who found with these non-traditional athletes cases where their lives have significantly changed.

"There's you before wrestling, and there's you after wrestling," she explained. "I think all these girls can agree that there's been such a huge character development and attitude change within themselves."

For McCallum, in her final stretch before graduating, this will be her first and only chance for a gold medal at state.

Coach Evens, who has seen McCallum become a leader on the team, wishes he could keep her longer. At the same time, he's looking ahead after such an energetic start to girls' wrestling in Nebraska.

"It's the first year, but I'm excited to say year five and year ten and so on. Those girls this year, they're the groundbreakers, and they're the ambassadors of the sport."

It's a common thought among the first generation of girls' wrestling coaches.

"Who knows where they go from here. I think Nebraska's going to be an outstanding girls' wrestling state just as we are with the boys."

The importance of this tournament to the wrestlers is twofold and all wrapped up in the personality of Reagan Gallaway from that tiny school in Amherst.

First, there's the push for individual excellence she embodies.

"It's going to mean a lot because all my hard work and determination, (and) it's going to show down in Omaha," Gallaway said. "All summer long, I just wrestle and wrestle and wrestle because I wanted to be the best. Who doesn't want to be the best?"

Second, there's the understanding the first-ever championship carries its own weight for a new generation of female athletes.

"I think it makes a huge difference because we get to show it's not going to be just a male-dominant sport anymore. We are just as good as the guys."

Early on, Galloway's passion for the sport became an act of defiance.

"People used to tell me that girls wrestling is not a thing. You should just quit. It's not a thing. I'm like, 'Well if you guys can do it, I can do it.' So I'm going to go down to Omaha. I'm going to prove that girls' wrestling is here to stay, and I'm going to win the state title down in Omaha."

There isn't a soul in Amherst, Nebraska who would doubt Reagan Gallaway.

Her dream is the dream of girls representing 125 schools on wrestling teams this week. There are no divisions for the size of the schools. If a competitor gets a medal, she will be able to say without a doubt she's the best in Nebraska.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nebraska Public Media sports producer Brock Lohr conducted the interviews for this story.

"Wrestle Like A Girl" video produced by Nebraska Public Media Sports