Calli Wilkinson took the mat Thursday with the same jitters as any freshman wrestler would have. But the Neligh-Oakdale 106-pounder isn't your typical wrestler.
After all, how many other freshmen would win their first varsity match having never wrestled before - not even at the junior high or club level.
If you thought the 15-year-old is considered nontypical because she’s a girl, then think again. She’s a Neligh-Oakdale wrestler. Period.
"They don’t have a problem with it,” Wilkinson said about her teammates. “The boys have been supportive and haven’t said anything down about it. They’re trying to make me better. Besides, it’s going to benefit them in the long run to have another teammate.”
That was proven on Saturday at the Creighton Invite. Wilkinson struggled against the tougher competition, but she still walked away with a sixth-place medal. With more experience, her chances of scoring points for the team will only improve.
Coach Gary Davis said Wilkinson fits in so well with the team that he doesn’t even think about coaching a female.
“It’s like coaching any other 106-pounder, which is kind of interesting,” he admitted. “Because of her attitude, it’s made it easy. She runs everything with the kids and does all of the conditioning. She’s our 106-pounder - that’s the way we look at it.”
Wilkinson said there's been a learning curve, trying to figure out some of the techniques. She’s been around wrestlers for years, but it’s different being on the mat. Both Wilkinson and Davis said her teammates’ acceptance has made a difference.
"They team is very cool with it,” Davis said. "It’s new territory for us, so I had no idea how it would be. But the kids have been nothing but positive. We have a bunch of great kids, who are just great people.”
Neligh-Oakdale’s wrestling program has traditionally been one of the top programs in Northeast Nebraska. With nearly 20 state medalists in the record books, a state championship in 1993 and several other top-three finishes, including third-place in Class D last year, the Warriors have made their mark historically over the years.
But they’d never had a female wrestler on the team - until now. Wilkinson, who is the daughter of Justin and Carla Wilkinson, said she’s proud to be the first.
"It feels good inside because I’m being unique,” she said. “Maybe this is going to start a trend, maybe more girls will be interested in wrestling. We’re not trying to take over the sport, but maybe more girls will pay attention to wrestling now."
With a wrestling family, especially on her mom’s side, Wilkinson said she often wrestles her brothers and cousins at family events. Their support was key to her decision.
"I came from a wrestling family and wanted to do something new. I wanted to do something that no one’s ever done before,” she said. “Everyone is supportive. I have a lot of people on my side telling me I can do this, from family to the team. It really helps that they’re behind me.”
Wilkinson officially joined the team about a week after practice began. She'd been talking to her parents about it for a couple of weeks and decided to give it a try.
Thursday marked the Warriors’ season opener. Hosting Ashley/Litchfield, Wilkinson was one of the first Warriors to wrestle. She pinned her opponent in a mere 43 seconds.
"I was really nervous and had to push that aside and do what I had to do and listen to coach,” she said.
But the match was stopped before it even started. Wilkinson hadn’t taped her laces. Considering it was the first meet of the season, Wilkinson wasn’t the only Warrior who hadn’t taped their laces. The entire team then checked theirs.
That mistake could have been detrimental. It could have thrown her completely off her game and allowed the jitters to take over. But it didn't.
Wilkinson taped her laces and went to work. She didn’t miss a beat and quickly shot for her opponent, wasting little time as she took control of the match.
“She’s a tough-nosed kid,” Davis said. “She has a really nice shot, picks things up quick and doesn’t back off, which is the key.”
Things won’t get any easier for Wilkinson. Neligh-Oakdale traditionally has a tough schedule, building experience as it works toward district competition.
Wilkinson admitted it was nice to get that first win right off the bat, proving that she does have what it takes to win.
"I think the nerves are going to be there for a while, but I know I can win,” she said. "You have to have that inner confidence, and I know I can do this. I know I can win."