San Benito High girls look to rule mat

Jenna Hartman, Maribel Saucedo, Nathalie Medina and Savannah Sepulveda are all section-ranked in their respective weight classes. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Girls wrestling is one of the fastest rising sports in the country, and no where is that more apparent than in Hollister. San Benito High has 10 girls on its roster, a healthy number that Haybalers coach Steven Salcedo expects to grow in the coming years. The number of girls tournaments are growing in popularity, and athletes are starting at a young age, just like the boys.

“Even in our youth program (Razorbacks club team), we have girls wrestling,” Salcedo said. “My daughter Eliana is 6 (years old) and wrestling, and some of her friends are getting in the sport as well. With Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) getting more popular, more girls are starting to realize they can make a name for themselves.”

Salcedo said he was eager to get Eliana into wrestling because of what the sport can teach her in terms of valuable traits that will help her in every facet of her life.

“You learn life lessons through wrestling like character building, self defense, hard work, determination,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why as a parent I wanted my daughter to compete in wrestling.”

Eliana, who is a first-grader at Ladd Lane, won her first match last Sunday in a tournament in Watsonville. She practices with the Razorbacks, which has 40 to 45 wrestlers in their program.

“We’re trying to introduce kids to wrestling so by the time they get to middle school and high school, they’ll have a firm background,” Salcedo said.

Entering the week, San Benito High had four girls in the top 10 of the Central Coast Section rankings: Jenna Hartman (No. 6 at 111 pounds), Nathalie Medina (No. 7 at 126), Maribel Saucedo (No. 2 at 160) and Savannah Sepulveda (No. 8 at 235). The rest of the girls team roster include Rayven Bedolla, Brooke Weitz, Arianna Leija, Madeline Pena, Nailea Betancourt and Alondra Gonzalez.

San Benito High hosts the third largest girls-only tournament in the section at its annual Lady Baler Bash on Jan. 27.

“Last year I believe we had 70 teams represented from all over the state,” said Salcedo, who envisions hiring a girls coach as the number of participants at the school keep rising. “I’m excited to have more girls join the team.”

Especially ones in the mold of Hartman, whose dedication to the sport runs deep. Having done Hapkido—a Korean martial art involving joint locks, grappling and throwing—since age 8, Hartman had experience in MMA when she took up wrestling as a seventh grader at Rancho San Justo. Last season, Hartman took sixth in the 111-pound weight class of the CCS Championships.

This season, Hartman expects to contend—if not win—a section title. She definitely put in the work over the off-season, often working out twice a day to gain any mental or physical edge possible.

“Jenna has been the most committed, going to summer practices and a wrestling camp over the summer,” Salcedo said. “It’s encouraging to see.”

Each morning, Hartman went on a 2 to 3 mile run. In the afternoon or evening, she worked out in her garage doing box jumps or battle ropes. In the Balers’ summer conditioning sessions, Hartman practiced from 7 to 9 a.m. If Hartman ever got tired during a workout, she visualized herself on the podium, receiving a medal.

“I’d also be thinking about if other girls were working harder than me, and that is what pushed me through to work harder than them,” she said.

Salcedo said it’s teenagers like Hartman who are the perfect role model for girl wrestlers growing up. In fact, Salcedo was ecstatic talking about this year’s girls team.

“I’m very encouraged that girls are working hard,” he said. “They’re good role models for the younger gals like my daughter. I know we have some great female athletes in Hollister, and wrestling is a great outlet to go to college.”

Hartman said she’s most proud of finishing her freshman season.

“Last year I think we had 100 (boys and girls combined on the team) at the beginning of the season, and by the end there was 50 or so,” she said. “Just making it through is a real accomplishment.”

Even though Hartman has improved her technical skills from a year ago—a result of wrestling against more boys this season—she points to her determination as her greatest attribute.

“I refuse to give up,” she said.

Hartman’s younger sister, Rachael, who is a fifth grader at Ladd Lane, does ballerina and acting. That is something Hartman admires about her sister.

“I’m too scared to get on stage,” she said.

Actually, Hartman is fearless on the stage—it just happens to be a mat.

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