By Sara Hinds
“Just throw me out there!” is Kenisha Jacsaint’s catchphrase at every wrestling meet she attends as manager for Doane University’s men’s wrestling team.
The Doane senior has been part of the men’s wrestling program for the past two seasons, serving as manager last season.
She wrestles against her classmates in practice. This summer she competed in the USA Weightlifting National Championships 25 & under group.
Her jovial plea, though valid, had to be dismissed because women couldn’t wrestle men. And Doane didn’t have a women’s team.
But now the women have a team of their own.
Women’s wrestling is the “latest and greatest” sport in high school and collegiate athletics.
Dana Vote, Doane’s men’s head wrestling coach and newly named Director of Wrestling, and his staff intend to run with the “greatest” identifier when the Tiger women compete in their inaugural season this winter.
The timing couldn’t be better.
In Nebraska, girls’ wrestling graduated from an “emerging sport” to a sanctioned sport with a championship, after a unanimous vote by the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) board of directors in May 2021.
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) followed suit nearly a year later as women’s wrestling grew from an invitational sport to a national championship sport in April 2022. Such a status requires at least 40 schools to sponsor the sport on a varsity level.
Previously, women’s wrestling teams from every division — NAIA, JUCO, Division I, II and III — competed for one championship under the Women’s College Wrestling Association.
Come winter, Doane will be one of five* schools in the Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) with women’s wrestling teams. They’ll join Dakota Wesleyan University, Hastings College, Midland University and the University of Jamestown.
Six teams are required for it to become a conference sport. For the 2022-23 season, Doane will join the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference as an associate member in women's wrestling.
Adding a sport is about more than sufficing a trend or keeping up with the Joneses and Jimmies of the GPAC.
Logistics have to make sense from both an administrative and athletic perspective. Are facilities already in place to host practices? Is it feasible to maintain another sport?
Vote originally wrote a proposal to add women’s wrestling when he was first hired as head coach of men’s wrestling in 2019. Two years later the timing was right.
Doane’s Board of Trustees approved the addition of women’s wrestling in October 2021.
With an existing men’s team that’s achieved conference and national success since Vote’s hire in 2019, what would be a totally acceptable “building” year for a first-time program has the resources and support to launch as a championship contender team. The thirst for continued dominance in a sport is there.
The facilities are almost there. Butler Gymnasium, the current home of the men’s wrestling program, is undergoing renovations that will keep its historical integrity intact, but add space and amenities both necessary and nice to have for two wrestling teams.
Plans include a women’s locker room, workout space and wrestling room.
Since his hire, Vote has transformed the men’s team from just four returning wrestlers into national contenders. In the 2021-22 season, the team was GPAC tournament champions, received four NAIA All-American honors and finished fifth at the NAIA National Championships. Coming into this next season, senior Baterdene "Baagii" Boldmaa has a chance to become a four-time national champion.
The success of the men’s team partially translates to the women’s team in that recruiting numbers are distinctly higher than their competitors.
Less than six months before the first scheduled meet, Vote said recruiting was in the double digits.
“If you look at all the programs around the country at the start, anybody that’s got more than 10 in their first year did a pretty good job,” Vote said.
Vote and company have since reached their goal of 20 women wrestlers to start the season.
“It’s a dogfight out there for getting numbers [...] and getting talented girls that are going to help build the program,” he continued.
Despite growth in the sport’s popularity, the number of colleges offering programs is outpacing the number of girls looking to continue wrestling after high school. It’s a game of catch-up right now.
“And that’s the biggest thing for us is we don’t want to just have a program, we want to be successful," Vote said.
Normally, this is where the foundation of a successful men’s team doesn’t factor in. Men’s and women’s wrestling are like comparing apples and oranges.
“It’s like baseball and softball,” Vote said. “It’s the same concept but you got a totally different ball.”
Mechanics, technique and scoring are all different. You wouldn’t dare run practices together because it just wouldn’t make sense.
Men’s collegiate competes in folk style wrestling — women’s collegiate competes in freestyle. Vote said that most girls wrestle folk style in high school and must transition to freestyle in college.
It’s unfair, unfortunately, as they've never likely wrestled freestyle in their career. But Doane has a fairly huge advantage in Zach Wilcox and Tsogtbayar “Buka” Tserendagva.
The pair served as assistant coaches on the men’s side under Vote. In August 2022, Wilcox was named the head coach for women’s wrestling and Buka was named an assistant coach.
Wilcox led the Team USA 20U Greco-Roman Wrestling team to the championship of the Pan-American Wrestling Championships in May 2022. He also coaches the Nebraska USA Wrestling (NEUSAW) Freestyle and Greco teams.
Buka is a Mongolian coaching powerhouse. In his home country he led club teams to medals at the U23 World Championships and Women’s Youth Olympic Games and served as the Mongolia Paralympics National Coach and Junior National Team coach.
He’s well-versed in many wrestling styles from sumo to greco, but freestyle happens to be his favorite.
“I have not coached women since I left Mongolia, so it will be a breath of fresh air to be able to coach women again,” Buka said.
Buka — and the rest of the women’s wrestling team at Doane — can expect to compete against some opponents of the same caliber he coached in Mongolia.
“The unique thing about the women is — even at the smaller colleges — you can have girls that are wrestling at the World Championships, that can qualify for the Olympic trials and things like that,” Vote said. “You’ll see girls that are at the small universities that are wrestling on the world stage.”
But if anybody is up to the challenge and can compete with the best of ‘em, Jacsaint is your woman.
*Five at the time of writing. But with the aforementioned growing popularity of the sport, that number can likely increase by publication/when you’re reading this.