Sophia Sunior thought the mat might be the perfect place to learn something new about herself.
So after hanging around a handful of Hastings boys wrestling practices a year ago, the Saxons senior opted to join the school's fledging girls team. As a former swimmer and current softball player, Sunior considered herself competitive. But the real attraction to wrestling, said Sunior, was to test her own mental and physical boundaries.
At first, Sunior struggled with the decision as she met with little success against more experienced wrestlers. But little by little, Sunior began to improve. And that's when she began to discover critical pieces about herself.
"For me, a lot of it was mental," Sunior said. "But I became stronger mentally and physically. Wrestling is probably one of hardest sports there is. It's almost legalized fighting, and I've learned so much about myself. My motto is if I can wrestle, I can do anything. You can learn some of the best (teaching) tools about yourself you can get."
While Sunior started last season slowly, she finished with a bang, placing eighth at MHSAA Individual Finals at 190 pounds. She's started this season with seven wins over her first eight matches.
Sunior is part of what Hastings coach Mike Goggins believes is the largest girls wrestling team in the state with 16 athletes. Goggins, who coached the Hastings boys team for 38 years, switched over to the girls program two years ago. Hastings had five Finals qualifiers and three placers last season.
Goggins isn't necessarily surprised that girls wrestling has caught on at Hastings, which has long had a quality boys program with Goggins' teams winning 11 league championships, 10 Districts and one Regional title and totaling 28 Individual Finals placers under his guidance.
The ability to build a program has carried over to the girls. The team had 14 wrestlers a year ago, and this season’s competitors have come from a variety of backgrounds. Of the 16 total, seven are first-year wrestlers. Three are first-year varsity letter winners, while two play basketball, two tennis, two softball, and one is a volleyball player.
“It's really kind of taken off," Goggins said of the sport. "A lot of the girls had shown interest in boys wrestling, and then when we offered wrestling for the girls, we began to get numbers. I'm not terribly surprised by that. Just the experience of what the girls saw with the boys, I just think they wanted an opportunity."
MHSAA participation surveys show 100-150 girls regularly participating in wrestling during the end of the first decade of the 2000s, but numbers began growing substantially to match the introduction of a state individual tournament by the Michigan Wrestling Association (the state coaches association) during the 2018-19 season and then the addition of a girls-only division to the MHSAA Individual Finals in 2022. Goggins said the vast majority of girls would much rather compete against girls. “I'd say 10 to 12 of our wrestlers will say no thanks to wrestling against boys, and that's absolutely fine,” he said.
MHSAA assistant director Dan Hutcheson noted girls wrestling has nearly tripled from 495 athletes who completed an Alpha weigh-in in 2019-20 to 1,332 this winter.
"The goal is we hope it keeps growing to where schools have complete lineups," Hutcheson said. "Wrestling is a sport you can do on your own and if you put in the work, you can be successful.
"We don't know how or to what point it grows, but it's been at a nice clip."
Goggins said the sport's next hurdle indeed will be fielding enough teams for dual meets. Hastings has gone to three tournaments, which included plenty of travel to East Jackson, Grayling and Montague. The Montague event had 52 competitors, but weekend tournaments can be a numbers struggle as most teams are never able to field a complete lineup. That leaves organizers with the challenge of organizing brackets to fit the participants.
When there are enough girls for more teams to fill the standard 14 weight classes, the sport will likely grow even more, Goggins contends.
One of his first decisions as girls coach was to hire a female assistant in his daughter, Erin Slaughter, also the school's volleyball coach. Goggins, the school's athletic director, said the move means girls don't have to turn to a male coach for advice. "It's added a certain comfort level," he said.
While Sunior is one of the most experienced wrestlers, first-year senior Skylar Fenstemaker said she has her own reasons for joining the program.
"It's a challenge," she said. "Just the physical commitment and how hard (you) have to work. And I wrestle because I like being part of a team and the bond you have with the other girls. You learn that you have to work hard to get what you want."
PHOTOS (Top) The Hastings girls wrestling team celebrates its team championship at the Grayling Invitational this season. (Middle) First-year wrestler Skylar Fenstemaker, left, and returning Finals placer Sophia Sunior are two of 16 athletes on the team. (Photos courtesy of the Hastings girls wrestling program.)
Dominic D’Ambrosio’s answer when asked at 5 years old if he wanted to start wrestling was probably a clue for what was to come.
“I remember when my dad asked me if I wanted to wrestle,” D’Ambrosio said. “I think I just said, ‘Sure.’”
It’s not that D’Ambrosio would be nonchalant or aloof when it came to wrestling. He’s quite the opposite, actually. The work he’s put in has him unbeaten at 43-0 as a senior, ranked among the top four at 138 pounds in Division 3, and threatening to become the Spartans’ first Individual Finals champion.
The clue was that D’Ambrosio was going to be calm and cool on the mat, and have a grounded view of the sport off it, which has also helped him reach those heights.
“When I was younger, I got an award for being a cool cucumber – the Cool as a Cucumber award,” he said. “When I lose, I just look at it as I can get better from it. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s serious, the work you put into it, but it’s not so serious. If you lose, you just want to get better. I just like to get the work done.”
To be fair, D’Ambrosio doesn’t do much losing.
He’s dropped just nine matches during his four-year career, compared to 159 wins, and a third of those losses came against Dundee four-time Finals champion Braeden Davis, who is now unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country at 125 pounds as a true freshman at Penn State.
D’Ambrosio was 14-0 as a freshman when COVID-19 ended the Spartans’ 2020-21 season short of the postseason. He placed third at the Finals as a sophomore, and fifth as a junior.
He has his eyes on the ultimate prize this year, and for a moment he allowed the thought to get him out of his even-keeled nature. But even that doesn’t last long.
“It would be pretty special,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for it. But, either way, I’m just going to go and leave it all out there.”
D’Ambrosio is the son of Imlay City coach Tony D’Ambrosio, which in some cases could create more pressure. But not this one. And a lot of that could be credited to Tony.
“We always tried to keep the pressure low and just have fun,” said Tony D’Ambrosio, who is in his 10th year at the helm in Imlay City. “We just focus on getting better. He’s always just wrestled. It’s just how he is. Dominic doesn’t even look at the brackets. He doesn’t find out who he’s wrestling until he shakes hands.”
What happens after they shake hands isn’t what one would expect from someone who could win that same Cool as a Cucumber award every year.
D’Ambrosio’s matches typically don’t last long. Of his 159 wins, 105 have come by pin, including all three of his wins at the 2023 Individual Finals. As a junior, he set the school pin record at 41. This season, 32 of his 43 wins have been by pinfall.
Just four of his matches have gone beyond the first period this season, and only two of those have gone the distance.
“This year, he’s really been turning it all on,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “He didn’t start pinning a lot until later on into middle school and high school. It’s just basic stuff, not anything fancy. He’s a nice kid, but when he’s on the mat, he’s going to turn you over.”
Dominic isn’t a thrower, and his pins aren’t the result of catching an opponent in anything fluky. He’s just meticulous, and able to take advantage of any opening he’s given.
“I’m (working on a half Nelson) 100 times, 200 times during the week, so I’ll be able to hit it during the weekend,” he said. “If I got somebody’s head, nobody is getting out of it. I can just flow really well into a pinning sequence.”
As he pins his way through the season, D’Ambrosio is racking up awards. He’s been named Most Valuable Wrestler at four tournaments bouncing between 138 and 144, and at one point found himself ranked No. 1 by Michigan Grappler at 138.
As you would expect, he hasn’t allowed that to get to his head, and as his father puts it, “the only ranking that matters is the podium.”
With District tournaments this week, D’Ambrosio now can focus 100 percent of his efforts on getting to the top of that podium. But don’t expect the pressure to mount in his house or on the mat.
“It would be special,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “But, again, as long as he goes out there and just does what he does, and does his best – it’s kind of like the NCAAs, you have to have a good weekend. It doesn’t dictate who you are. It would be awesome, and it’s a great goal to have. It would be a great goal to accomplish and be the first (from Imlay City). But wherever he ends up, I’m going to be proud of what he’s done.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Imlay City’s Dominic D’Ambrosio, right, wrestles to a fifth-place finish at 132 pounds in Division 3 last season at Ford Field. (Middle) D’Ambrosio, right, takes to the mat during his early years in the sport. (Below) D’Ambrosio, right, works to pin an opponent. (Top photo by High School Sports Scene; other photos courtesy of the D’Ambrosio family.)