Takedown of convention

High schools: Western Tech's Jade Hendricks, 15, makes a compelling case that she is not simply a girl wrestling but a wrestler wrestling.

High Schools

January 14, 2004|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Teammates nicknamed her "Pinky" - the color she crochets into delicate blankets. But on the mat, very little is soft about Western Tech's Jade Hendricks.

The sophomore has had her hand raised in victory six times and has been pinned only once in five losses. Three coaches have forfeited bouts rather than risk their athletes' losing to Hendricks, a defensive wrestler whose balance helps her control male opponents.

Her coach once watched Hendricks pin someone, return to the bench and begin crocheting.

"One second, she's out there beating up guys, the next she's back in her own personal world knitting - or is it crocheting? She tells me there's a difference," said Western Tech coach Ishmael Smith. "But in practice, she's the hardest worker in the room, doing two to three hundred pushups a practice ... like everyone else.

"She's a legitimate wrestler, not just a girl wrestling. She's a wrestler wrestling."

Hendricks is among an estimated 80 or more Maryland public school girls who are participating in varsity or JV programs, according to David Case, director of girls wrestling for the Maryland State Wrestling Association. In the Baltimore area, schools that have had girls wrestle varsity matches include Patapsco and C. Milton Wright.

While public school systems in Texas, Michigan and Hawaii have wrestling programs for girls only, Maryland does not.

Overall, the National Federation of State High School Associations counts 3,769 girls competing as high school wrestlers - up from 94 in 1992.

Hendricks' habit of shedding as much as three pounds in the days before a match often gives her an edge in size and strength over male opponents in the lowest weight class, 103 pounds.

"As boys get older and stronger, I don't know if I'd be as successful against them, but I think I'll have a good chance staying at 103," said Hendricks, 15, who is 4 feet 11.

A three-sport athlete, she made the varsity soccer and lacrosse teams as a freshman and was "clearly the most athletic player" on the JV basketball team, according to coach Christian Miller. "But she wanted a more physical sport, and she made it clear from the beginning she would wrestle the next year," Miller said.

Beyond sports, Hendricks is an A student and belongs to the school-sponsored "Linus Club," which makes blankets for hospitalized children - the motivation for her crocheting.

And though she has had to overcome the death of her mother and a strained relationship with her father, Hendricks keeps "a positive attitude," said Laura Stumpfoll, the Linus Club instructor and her former teacher.

Born in Baltimore, Hendricks moved at 11 to West Virginia with her mother, Lori Hendricks. Jade was a cheerleader, played basketball and was a tailback on a recreation league football team until she gave it up as not challenging enough. "I could run faster than everyone," she explained.

Hendricks' life changed drastically in October 2001, when her mother died of heart failure. "It was really hard, something we had a hard time getting over. But you have to move on," she said.

Hendricks and her older sister, Cara Palmerino, returned to the Baltimore area to live with their aunt, Cynthia Austin.

"There was nothing out there she couldn't do," Austin said of Jade's childhood exploits, including riding a mini-bike at 5. Austin's nieces live with her and her husband, Mike, and the Austins' 6-year-old son in Gwynn Oak.

Jade's aunt didn't welcome the idea of her niece wrestling.

"I never told her no, but I just feel that there's areas that are just for men and not always for women to get into," Austin said. "[But] at this age, and in her weight class, there's not much of a difference in a boy and a girl as there will be later on."

Why does Hendricks wrestle? "Because it's challenging and fun," she said. "I had beaten guys before, growing up - messing around, grabbing legs and roughhousing.

"My aunt wouldn't let me box because she said it would mess up my face," said Hendricks. "And I couldn't find any girls wrestling teams in Maryland."

So she joined the boys.

"When she came to sign-ups, I thought she wanted to be the team manager," Smith said. "But she said, `I'm here to wrestle.' "

During meets, she puts her hair in a bun under a stocking cap that bobs as she wrestles.

In a recent 6-5 victory over an opponent who weighed in at 99 pounds, she countered a takedown attempt and employed her favorite move - the front-headlock - before spinning behind for the first of three two-point takedowns.

"She's tough as nails," Towson coach Robert Cephas said of Hendricks. "It looks like she has all of the basics down."

Former college wrestler Art Lieberman was equally impressed by Hendricks.

"Pretty decent stance on her feet, pretty good balance, adequate strength - she seems capable of holding her own in this weight class," said Lieberman, whose son, Dan, wrestles for Towson.

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