It’s an exciting time to be in high school girls wrestling and nowhere is that more evident that at Westlake.

The Thunder program was recognized this week by the National Wrestling Coaches Association as the coaching staff was honored as Utah’s head coach and assistant coaching staff of the year for girls wrestling.

“Westlake took the bull by the horns and had 35 girls out for their all-girl team in its first year this year,” the press release said. “They won the girls state tournament in February and look to be a dominant program heading into the years to come as it is sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association.”

That’s just a small part of the story, however, as coaches Ben Szabo and Cody Burdett know all too well.

“I heard about the award and my first thought was that there was so much more we can do,” Szabo said in a phone interview Thursday. “We talk a lot about development over accomplishment. We talk with the girls about developing attributes that will help them more than winning in wrestling. The recognition feels good but it really gets me more excited about what the possibilities are.”

Szabo is a officially the head coach of the girls team while Burdett coaches the boys squad but the process of building a program has required a lot from everyone on the staff.

Burdett remembered what it was like to get things started.

“I had heard rumblings a few years ago about the possibility of having girls wrestling,” Burdett said in a phone interview Thursday. “Every year I go to the junior high schools and I recruit wrestlers. I started recruiting girls as well as boys and we ended up having 40 girls show up to practice during spring and summer workouts. The girls would come with their friends and say, ‘let’s try it.’ In the fall we had about 30 girls stick around in the fall. I was surprised by the numbers that turned out but it was an awesome beginning for the program.”

Since the biggest girls wrestling team in the state on had 12-15 girls, getting that type of turnout was big for the Thunder.

Experience, however, was another story.

“Almost none of the girls had done much,” Burdett said. “They came from band, dance, volleyball, softball or even from doing no sports at all. They are normal girls who had an interest. I did have seven girls who had brothers who wrestled, as well as a bunch of girls who had been around the wrestling community.”

He explained that the biggest barrier for girls in the sport used to be the reality that they would be wrestling boys.

“For so many reasons, that is difficult,” Burdett said. “For them to know they were going to have their own girls team practices and competitions, it opened it up. It made it so it was a lot easier for them to see that they could do that.”

Seeing the development of the girls was something both Szabo and Burdett found to be immensely rewarding.

“Out of our entire team, we had three girls who had any wrestling experience at all,” Szabo said. “Only one had ever competed in an official match. When you look at it from that perspective, there are a lot of challenges and insecurities that come with that. Our goal is to really help these girls who are so young in the sport figure out the best parts of wrestling. That’s really exciting to me. There are so many more ways that they are going to develop.”

Burdett added: “It definitely is a growing process. We’re not as focused on the results as we are on the process and the development of them individually. The biggest hurdle that they have to face is mental, to do things that they know are going to be difficult. It’s a sport where you have to grind and get into painful positions and bleed and sweat. A lot of them didn’t know what they were getting themselves into but they have to endure these tough situations.”

But the girls started to see results, including winning the state title as a club. Burdett told of one of his athletes who hoped to play volleyball in college only to have that dream slip away. Instead she joined the wrestling program for her senior year and ended up getting a scholarship to compete at a new collegiate women’s wrestling program in Nebraska.

Szabo described a situation where one of the athletes who comes from a wrestling family had a tough couple of matches at state this year, but instead of getting down she returned to cheer on her teammates.

“I was completely blown away by that,” Szabo said. “She realized she still had sisters competing and was going to be there to cheer them on. It was great to see that type of leadership.”

While the on-the-mat success stories have been great, the benefits to the athletes have had a wider scope than the wrestling coaches expected.

“The psychological help that wrestling has provided on body image and mental challenges has been amazing,” Burdett said. “We had a talk recently and there were things the girls said about how wrestling has helped them with their self-image and to be stronger. Hopefully we are changing their lives for the better.”

Szabo said he can’t say enough about the determination and dedication of the wrestlers.

“They were all bought in,” Szabo said. “That’s why they were able to develop so quickly. None of the girls are halfway in. The girls created an environment where they all wanted to be.”

Since girls wrestling will be a sport that is sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association in 2020-21, other high schools will be ramping up their girls wrestling efforts — but Westlake plans to be the leader of the pack.

“There are going to be so many more girls who are going to try it,” Burdett said. “I think it is going to grow exponentially. I would expect in a year or two that we will have the same amount of girls as boys in wrestling. We are also looking regionally. We want to start wrestling in the bigger, Western State tournaments to challenge and push them to their limits.”

Szabo said the key for the Thunder will be to develop consistency through creating the right atmosphere.

“Having consistency is the key as far as winning wrestling matches, but whether we win or not doesn’t matter as much to me because what I’ve bought into the most was the idea of development over accomplishment,” Szabo said. “You can develop yourself into a state-champion-caliber person without having won a title. At the end of the season, what we are hoping for is that our young women have developed into state-champion-caliber people. If they feel loved, it will lead to consistency.”

Daily Herald sports reporter Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or jlloyd@heraldextra.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.

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