Jefferson Hills middle school girl enhances Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills on the mat
Girls’ wrestling is a relatively new sport in Western Pennsylvania, but it is growing quickly.
Mackenzie Matta of Jefferson Hills already is a top contender in the state with just one year of wrestling experience under her belt.
Mackenzie, 14, recently won first place in her weight class (110 pounds) at the New Jersey girls’ junior high wrestling tournament, and was the Pennsylvania girls’ wrestling tournament runner-up.
Her coaches predict a bright future, and Mackenzie is hopeful she will be wrestling in college some day.
Mackenzie took up wrestling to help with her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu martial arts skills, but quickly realized she enjoyed competing on the mat equally as well.
“I really like them both because they’re challenging,” she said.
Her parents, Melissa Matta and Dave Wright, have been supportive from the start. Wright wrestled at Carlynton High School and owns Wright’s Gym, a martial arts gym and wrestling club located in Crafton.
“I was surprised when Mackenzie told me she wanted to compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But then she placed second in her first competition,” Wright said. “It’s a grappling type martial art, so I told her if she really wanted to get good at it, she should learn to wrestle.”
Wright did have some initial reservations about whether he should let his daughter get involved in such a male-dominated sport. Ultimately, he decided it was important that shet learn the skills for self-defense.
“I had to think about it long and hard,” he said. “I didn’t want her to ever be in a position where she couldn’t defend herself.”
Josh and Jesse Valentine run the Cobra Club Wrestling program at Wright’s Gym, and also coach wrestling at Carlynton High School. They began teaching Mackenzie wrestling takedown skills.
Wright credits the Valentine brothers with a lot of Mackenzie’s early wrestling success.
This year, Mackenzie joined the Pleasant Hills Middle School wrestling program. It didn’t take long for Rudy Nesbitt, the Jaguars’ varsity head coach, to recognize the eighth-grader’s talent on the mat.
“Mackenzie’s a natural. I noticed her right away, and then I talked to her and realized she also has a passion for sports,” Nesbitt said. “She’s good at picking up new moves. She works hard at the conditioning, and she keeps track of her nutrition, which is unusual for this age group.”
Said Mackenzie, “I try to keep track of my nutrition, and do what I can to make weight.”
Nesbitt is convinced Mackenzie has what it takes to succeed in wrestling.
He says there’s really no difference between coaching girls’ and boys’ wrestling. He acknowledges Mackenzie will face some tough challenges wrestling against boys in high school, especially as they get stronger.
“I prefer wrestling girls because it’s more fair,” Mackenzie said. “But I don’t mind wrestling boys because it’s all good experience for me.
“The boys on the team have treated me just like one of the guys. I haven’t had to deal with any immaturity. They all seem to respect me.”
Nesbitt believes Mackenzie will simply use the boys’ matches as part of her training process.
“She’s not afraid of anything,” he said. “I told her to get as much mat time as she can get.”
According to her father, that’s exactly what Mackenzie plans to do.
Though she has already defeated some boys, Mackenzie has no illusions of winning many high school matches against her male counterparts. She simply wants the training and additional mat time to improve her athletic skills.
Mackenzie already has attended a girls’ wrestling camp at Lock Haven University, and another hosted by the U.S. National Team at Kings College in Bristol, Tenn.
Wright said, “Her goal is to wrestle in college. Lock Haven has a women’s team; there are others that are adding teams.”
“I’d really like to go to college for wrestling and maybe even take it to the next level, like the Olympics some day,” Mackenzie said.
Nesbitt also sees a future for girls’ wrestling in Western Pennsylvania, and he wants to help the sport grow by starting a girls’ traveling team soon.
According to Nesbitt, there are enough facilities and interest to support a girls’ traveling team.
Girls’ wrestling is much more popular in the eastern half of the state, but Nesbitt hopes it will catch on here as well. With more colleges offering women’s wrestling programs, the local interest hopefully should increase.
Nesbitt is looking forward to coaching Mackenzie for the next few years. He has high hopes for her.
“She’s going to be one of the great ones,” Nesbitt said.
Jennifer Goga is a freelance writer.