If sophomore Sumeddha Biswal and freshman Stephanie Kornberg had the physical strength to match their mental fortitude, they’d be two of Edgemont’s best varsity wrestlers.
They’re working on that.
“I started late and I do not have the muscular strength that most boys do,” said Biswal, who picked up the sport as an eighth-grader on modified. “Having a coach like Pete [Jacobson] and a team that supports you, they will help you get better. Coach realizes I’m not as strong, but he realizes I can work as hard and he doesn’t segregate me away from the guys because of things like that.”
Kornberg’s entry into the predominantly boys sport was natural as her brother Danny (Edgemont 2012) and sister Alyson (2015) both wrestled — and played football, just like their little sister — for the Panthers. It was Kornberg, a wrestler since early in elementary school, who inspired Biswal to pick up the sport three years ago.
Last winter, Biswal became the third female to wrestle varsity for the Panthers, Kornberg the fourth this winter. In addition to Kornberg’s older sister, there was 1999 graduate Melanie Greenman, who wrestled at a time when girls were not participating in the sport in the great numbers they are today.
Then-coach George DiChiara welcomed Greenman into the fold and more recently current coach Pete Jacobson, a DiChiara protégé on and off the mat from Edgemont’s class of 1996, has encouraged girls to join his team during his eight years as head coach.
“To be honest I’m a huge proponent of girls wrestling.” Jacobson said. “I would love to have more girls in our program. It’s such a great sport for girls because it’s empowering in ways other sports aren’t because it’s powerful, because it’s individual and because it’s different than a lot of the other athletic opportunities for girls at the high school level.”
Biswal used to play soccer and she still plays softball, but wrestling opened up a whole new world and perspective when it came to training and competing.
Without a supportive program like Edgemont, Biswal likely would have walked away from the sport.
“Honestly it was one of my fears at first and when I first joined the varsity team I was really scared, like, ‘Are they going to accept me?’” Biswal said. “They were really accepting and I have made so many friends out of this entire team. I consider them a really close family of mine.”
Biswal and Kornberg have several practice partners at their weight classes, 138 and 145 pounds, respectively.
“It was awkward at first, but over time I got to know Sumeddha and I learned to work with her,” junior Kenny Zhong said. “Over time it felt like second nature. It doesn’t matter what gender you are. For wrestling it matters that you have toughness and perseverance. That’s all you need.”
That’s a common attitude amongst Edgemont’s wrestlers more now than in the past. With two girls on the team it’s “not really a big deal” anymore for Zhong. Other than a different locker-room, everyone is in it together.
“From personal experience, Sumeddha works super hard and if she doesn’t understand something she’ll work on it after practice,” Zhong said. “That shows she’s committed and she wants to improve herself and the team. We look out for each other and if we lose a match or don’t do well during practice we try to lift each other up.”
Kornberg received that level of support from the beginning, having joined Edgemont’s youth program when she was 6 or 7 years old.
“I feel like the group of guys I’ve been surrounded with all these years are really supportive,” Kornberg said. “They’re understanding. It’s a big change because I remember when my sister did it, when she did football, some of the guys weren’t so nice. I’ve seen that change over the years. It’s really great I have this big team and community I can look at.”
Whether it has to do with training and competing or how to conduct themselves on and off the mat, Jacobson feels Edgemont’s wrestlers take their cues from the coaching staff, which has set up a welcoming culture. For Jacobson and the Panthers, Kornberg and Biswal are “one of the guys,” but, he said, “It is special and I think it does deserve to be recognized.”
As great as the guys have been, Biswal was stoked to have Kornberg with her at varsity this year after they were split up last year.
“Although last year the teammates were really helpful, it’s nice to have someone I can discuss problems that only I can relate to within the team,” Biswal said. “There are problems that I go through that the guys don’t and with Stephanie there’s someone I can talk to. It helps build a closer friendship.”
Then and now
DiChiara believes Greenman wrestled at 145 pounds when she was on varsity, and while he knows she must have had matches against boys — she was not a starter — there was one memorable junior varsity match at the Shoreline Classic at New Rochelle pitting Greenman against another female wrestler. The match “drew a lot of attention” at that time.
In those days there weren’t as many opportunities for the team’s second and third string wrestlers to compete like there are now and forget about mainstream girls-only tournaments. Wrestling has changed a great deal since then and teams will split up for competition or set up matches for less experienced wrestlers.
Opposing coaches and wrestlers haven’t always been quick to accept girls wrestling with boys, but more and more you are seeing girls on varsity teams, and there are several states that have added girls wrestling as a sport. It’s also a fast-growing college sport.
Wrestling is a sport where uncomfortable contact — even when wrestlers are of the same gender — is part of the game. Girls over the years have had boys purposely do things to them on the mat to show them they don’t want them there, which caused some to leave the sport, while other persevered and didn’t back down.
“I don’t know what drew Melanie to the sport or what made her want to try it, but it definitely was an adjustment,” DiChiara said. “You’re dealing with teenage boys who are now in full contact with someone of the opposite sex. There’s not a lot of places you don’t touch by the nature of the sport. I can imagine it was really a tough adjustment for them.”
What it often comes down to is a male not feeling comfortable potentially losing to a girl. New York State had a historic moment in wrestling in 2007 when Duanesberg’s Amy Whitbeck advanced to the second day of states with a consolation round win at 103 pounds. Edgemont’s Tom Blank was the referee for that match and the two made the front page of the Albany Times-Union.
As part of being effective wrestling coaches, DiChiara and Jacobson have to get in close contact with wrestlers to demonstrate moves and situations and actually work out with them in practice. DiChiara felt it best with Greenman to demonstrate for her using the male wrestlers, and even now, as he’s been volunteering part-time with the program, will do the same for Biswal and Kornberg.
“I don’t know what the right thing is, but I don’t want to put myself in that position,” DiChiara said. “I honestly don’t know what Pete and the other coaches do.”
Just like her sister before her, Kornberg likes the physical nature of wrestling and football, but also the mental aspect of it.
“You have to get your mind and body into it,” she said. “For wrestling it’s more of a family and a commitment. You want to reach your goals.”
There are more girls competing and more girls competitions compared to when Alyson competed. Though she didn’t get her peers wrestling at Edgemont, she did influence others to pick up the sport, and in a way she is responsible for her sister and Biswal being involved in the current generation.
Alyson also played girls lacrosse, which is the most contact-oriented sport for the girls. Rob Breitenbach coached Alyson in all three sports — football and wrestling at the modified level and varsity in lacrosse.
In 2012, Breitenbach said, “When I first saw her for wrestling I thought it was going to be very, very awkward. I thought it was going to be awkward for myself, awkward for the other wrestlers, as well. After one or two practices she was just another wrestler.”
Breitenbach said there were times when coaches didn’t force their wrestlers who were refusing to wrestle Alyson onto the mat and she didn’t get a chance to wrestle that particular day. He was impressed with her poise in those situations.
Stephanie Kornberg had a slight setback with a broken leg at the beginning of this season, but she’s come back strong. She still attended morning workouts and focused on upper body strength while she was sidelined and is 0-11 in varsity matches this year. She has also competed in junior varsity matches.
“I haven’t been able to do so much and put as much into matches because of my injury, so next year I have a lot more goals to look forward to,” Kornberg said. “Hopefully I can meet them.”
Biswal got off to a slow start on modified and last year on varsity she had some illness and injuries that slowed her progress.
“I know she struggled in the beginning because it was her first time doing wrestling ever, but I really saw her grow over the years,” Kornberg said.
The two did a year of modified together, were separated last year and reunited in the wrestling room this year, where they are focusing on bridging the strength gap and improving their technique and knowledge of the sport. In that regard, they are no different from any other wrestler in the room, including defending Section 1 champion Nicky Meglino, a senior captain.
Biswal was 0-11 last year and 0-13 this year on varsity, though she has some JV wins under her belt. The first win came at the JV Shoreline tournament, ironically the same tournament DiChiara has his most vivid memory of Greenman from.
“I did it out of pure hard work and I felt really accomplished when I did that,” Biswal said of her first win.
After some more urging by Kornberg, Biswal will compete in her first all-girls tournament in New York City on Feb. 16, an experience she’s looking forward to.
What Jacobson sees in the girls is they are “fearless” in nature.
“I think that’s such a huge characteristic that this helps develop because you can’t do this and not develop,” Jacobson said. “They will go out there and throw everything they have into something, into a match or practice, and they’ll lose. Sometimes they’ll lose badly, but they are the first ones to get back up, take a deep breath and fearlessly jump back in the next time.”
That’s a characteristic many of the boys take time to develop. There may be a strength disadvantage, but mentally the girls are light years ahead. Jacobson will use the girls in his program to empower his daughter, who was born last year, as he encourages her to chase her passions when she’s older. If that happens to include wrestling, he’s all for it.
“I know I would love for my daughter to wrestle,” he said. “I see what these girls get out of it and it’s the wave of the future in our sport.”