Guest instructor Jennesis Martinez, facing up, demonstrates a move to get an opponent on her back at Saturday’s afternoon session.
It’s often said, good things come in small packages, and for Colorado Mesa University’s women’s wrestling team, that means 4-foot, 11-inch Jennesis Martinez, a redshirt sophomore 101-pounder this past season who’s looking forward to two more seasons of mat action.
Martinez, a two-time state champion out of Manzano High School (Class of 2019), was at Rio Rancho High School last weekend to oversee a two-day camp for female wrestlers.
Girls wrestling in New Mexico really isn’t the same since Martinez’s days as a Monarch, and it’s come a long way since.
Martinez was the guest instructor at that camp in the Rams’ wrestling room, where about 50 girls ages 6-18 honed their skills.
“I started wrestling when I was about 5 years old,” Martinez recalled. “My dad was actually the assistant head (wrestling) coach at Manzano High School, and my older brother wrestled. I was always in the wrestling room, watching, and one day I told my mom I wanted to try it, so she got me a pair of my brother’s old wrestling shoes and I was like, ‘OK,’ and she took me to practice.
“I fell in love with it and I stuck with it, through all these years.”
By the time she was attending MHS, she remembered the wrestling program had exploded to three girls. But she had also stayed busy wrestling in out-of-state tournaments, “because we had very few here.”
“They didn’t add a girls division at state till my junior year,” she said. “It was just like an exhibition. They sanctioned it the year after I graduated.”
Martinez also was an All-State soccer player for the Monarchs, giving her something to do in the fall, and was a sprinter on the MHS track team, keeping her busy in the spring.
She was the Albuquerque Journal’s Female Athlete of the Year for the 2018-19 school year.
Martinez was a two-time state wrestling champion, and that helped her earn an invitation to wrestle for the new women’s wrestling team at Colorado Mesa University in Gunnison. (She also was a national “cadet folk-style” national champion.)
“College (wrestling) is definitely still growing,” she said, after spending three years there. “I had a lot more matches than I did at high school. Sometimes, they’ll have to forfeit – it’s hard weight class. (There aren’t a lot of 101-pounders). But I definitely do get a lot of matches.”
In the 2019-20 season, she was 20-5 on the mat and became an All-American after placing third at the nationals. In ’20-21, she was 9-9 and finished fourth at the nationals, again becoming an All-American.
“This past year I had an (ankle) injury and the year before that was a COVID year,” she said, explaining how she’ll be a senior academically and, including two years of grad school after that, still have three seasons of wrestling eligibility.
She was happy with the turnout at RRHS, recalling when there was barely a handful of female wrestlers in the metro area and to see – “That really did surprise me … but I’m grateful.
“Even though it’s a learning experience for the girls, it’s a learning experience for me,” she said.
Her advice for female wrestlers, and any who may think about trying a relatively new sport: “Just stick with it. When you start, it’s very hard, but I think if you kind-of push past that and keep with it, you’ll be successful, and you’ll continue on.”
RRHS wrestling coach Mike Santos said during his early years in the sports, several decades ago, he never envisioned girls competing in the sport.
“I started in middle school,” he said, back in the 1980s, so that’s been almost 40 years.
“As time went on in the sport – the international rise in women’s wrestling came up, it really took,” he said. “I’m glad it came to the high school level.”
Rusty Davidson, a name well known around the state when it comes to wrestling, was a “big advocate” for the sport at the national level.
“We haven’t had a big increase, but we’ve had some girls come in and try it for the first time,” he said. “Some of them have welcomed it, stuck with it; others have dropped it. It’s a different sport, a different type of person you have to attract to that.”
Of the handful of Rams females, Santos had two girls qualify for state last February: 100-pound sophomore Elena Cordova, whose mother, Theresa Cordova, became the girls coach; and 185-Marisa Cerrillo, a junior. (Cleveland also had two girls qualify for state: eighth-grader Heaven Handy and freshman Ashley Smith.)
Not blessed with strength, girls tend to become “more technical” on the mat when they wrestle, Santos said. “I think boys are a little more aggressive; the girls are pretty aggressive, but you’ll see more technical stuff.”
Santos said it’s hard to find a female wrestling coach, and his coach picked it up from watching her son Ryan, as well as through her involvement in coaching jiu-jitsu.
“If they’re interested, contact me or come down to the gym,” Santos said of prospective female wrestlers.
“You just have to have that intensity and work every day,” he said, for a sport that doesn’t focus on bigger, faster, stronger.
Until the sport grows, the state tournament for the girls is done as just one class, A-5A, and Miyamura High School from Gallup is the three-time reigning champ.