Balers’ girls wrestling carves own identity

Balers senior Jenna Hartman has come back strong after suffering a freak injury in last year's CCS Tournament. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Jenna Hartman could hear a snap as her right arm got put in an awkward position during her final match in the Central Coast Section Girls Wrestling Championships last February. Just like that, Hartman’s season was over, and her wrestling career was in jeopardy. A San Benito High senior, Hartman went through an emotional roller coaster in the ensuing months afterward, visiting multiple doctors before it was finally pinpointed that she had suffered nerve damage in her right arm.

For several months, Hartman’s arm would shake involuntarily, and often times simple things most people take for granted—like holding a utensil or brushing their teeth with their dominant hand—Hartman couldn’t do. Ultimately, the nerves in Hartman’s arm regenerated, allowing her to resume workouts in early September. But that meant Hartman basically missed an entire off-season to improve.

Far from being ideal—Hartman’s past off-season regimen included of five or more workouts a week, sometimes twice a day—she is thankful just to be back on the mat.

After all, Hartman’s initial prognosis was rather depressing: that she might not be able to wrestle ever again and even if she did, she wouldn’t be the same. Well, Hartman put those concerns to rest after she placed second in the 126-pound division of the Menlo-Atherton tournament on Dec. 1.

“I definitely had doubts along the way,” said Hartman, who was wrestling up a couple of weight classes at the M-A Tournament from her normal 116-pound division, where she entered the week No. 3 in the Central Coast Section rankings. “It’s been painful, but I’ve been working through it and learning to deal with it.”

Hartman is the face of a San Benito High girls wrestling team that is now recognized as its own program with second-year coach Samantha Barrientos, a 2013 San Benito High graduate who went on to wrestle at McKendree University in Illinois. Hartman is the only San Benito wrestler who is ranked in the top three in her weight class, though Savannah Sepulveda and Rayven Bedolla are solid wrestlers who should contend for a league championship and do well in CCS.

Barrientos expressed tremendous excitement for the program going forward, knowing it will take time to build something special.

“This is the first year being recognized as a team sport on campus separate from the boys team,” she said. “The vibe is so much more comfortable this year that you can tell we’re growing as a family. Last year I was trying to get to know the girls, they were trying to get to know me and trying to figure out how it would all come together. It was really nice to see the girls work all summer and cultivate a culture where we’re one team here for each other and ultimately to be the best we can be.”

Hartman was effusive in her praise for Barrientos, noting the coach’s drive and enthusiasm for the sport and helping the girls realize their potential.

“I love coach Sam,” Hartman said. “She is awesome and always motivating us. She’s not only our coach, but also our friend. I look up to her and want to be like coach Sam when I’m older. … I feel like having an official girls team has brought us closer. I remember in my freshman year we weren’t nearly as close. The team is growing and more girls are trying out. A couple of girls got their first (match) wins at our last tournament, so that was awesome to see.”

Hartman has qualified for the state championships in each of the last two years, placing third in the CCS tournament as a sophomore and fourth last year. Barrientos said Hartman has emerged as a stronger wrestler in a variety of ways.

“I think Jenna has grown a lot from last year to this year,” Barrientos said. “She’s turned into the leader of the team, and you see a different focus. She comes to practice and does what she needs to do every single day. She pushes other girls to work hard to keep up with her, raising the bar in the process. The other girls in the room are right there with her and they also push her to be her best. It’s a positive environment, and you see her motivation rubs off on everyone.”

Bedolla and Sepulveda will be wrestlers to watch out for all season. Sepulveda competes in the 235-pound division and is particularly strong with her throws. The senior is ranked fifth in her weight class in CCS.

“We call Savannah the friendly giant because you would never guess this girl can throw people around the way she can,” Barrientos said. “She has the sweetest smile, but when she is on the mat, a switch turns on and she is aggressive and works her stuff. She’s got the moves and is always trying to throw people around.”

Bedolla, who reached the CCS quarterfinals last year, entered the week ranked fifth at 106 pounds. The junior brings plenty of energy to the wrestling room.

“Raven has got spunk and fire,” Barrientos said. “She loves getting in weird scramble positions. I watch her and sometimes I’m so worried something is going to happen, but she always pulls it off and ends up pinning people. She has a really funky style and is really fun to watch. She has a really good flow to the way she does things and I’m excited to see how she does this season.”

Sepulveda earned a second-place finish and Bedolla a third in the Menlo-Atherton tournament. Even though the girls have their own team, the aforementioned trio of Hartman, Bedolla and Sepulveda still have to practice with the boys at times because the girls team neither has the depth nor the personnel—yet—to challenge the three standouts to the point where they can continually improve.

“It’s a work in progress,” Barrientos said. “Hopefully, in the next two years we’ll get the numbers up, and that will get us to get into two separate practices (boys and girls). We’re still trying to get the word out all the time and try to make it known on campus how great this sport can be for girls.”

Just ask Hartman. She grew up playing sports, but wrestling has become far and away her favorite sport. No other girl on the team has worked harder than Hartman over the last three years, which is why it was ultra-difficult for her when she got injured.

“There wasn’t much I could do but rest,” she said. “It was hard for me to do because I’ve been active for so long.”

The rest did her body wonders. Unable to train, Hartman focused on recovery, and it’s paid off in a big way. Once she started getting mobility back in her arm, Hartman started to build her strength back up before starting to train in early September. The road to get to that point was a path filled with obstacles. Initially, doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on with Hartman’s arm. It wasn’t until Hartman went to the Wade Wellness Center in San Jose that she experienced a breakthrough.

“I went to this chiropractor there and they said they could fix my arm,” Hartman said. “That there would be a point in the season where I would be able to get back out there. I’ve been going there since the injury, and he’s done a lot. He was one of the only doctors who said I could get back out there (eventually).”

Even though Hartman has regained full mobility in her right arm, it’s still not 100 percent. Every once in a while, she’ll experience a feeling in her arm similar to when it would shake on a moment’s notice. Hartman is thankful she’s back competing. After all, there was a point in time when it looked as if her wrestling career was over. In the Menlo-Atherton tournament, Hartman looked as solid as ever.

Hartman has a variety of shots in her repertoire, and she also utilizes a chop and tight waist and barb wire to record pins. Since Hartman was wrestling up two weight classes in the Menlo-Atherton tournament, she utilized a series of ankle picks and a high crotch to get opponents down to the mat and keep them there. Hartman prepared diligently for the season-opening tournament, sometimes doing two practices in a day.

“I worked hard over the Thanksgiving break, and just did as many things as I could,” she said. “I’ve been working on my moves, regaining my confidence and doing a lot of drills to try to get my arm to 100 percent.”

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