INWOOD — When the Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School launched a co-ed wrestling program last year, only a handful of grapplers showed up for tryouts — and most of them were boys.
So, this year, the team's coach and athletic director decided to split the squad between girls and boys to encourage more participation from the ladies.
The move resulted in 16 girls from the school trying out for and making the team — a bigger turnout than their male counterparts.
"I had more girls interested in wrestling than I did for track," said wrestling coach Andrew Dos Santos, 25, a former college wrestler, referring to his other coaching job at the charter school.
But that interest alone didn't automatically translate to success for the girls, who have had to face off against boys as one of the only all-girls middle school wrestling teams in the city, Dos Santos said.
They know they have to prove it on the mat, as well.
"They have an understanding of the sport," the Washington Heights resident said, "the strategy and style."
Dos Santos, who has been coaching at the school for the past three years, credited the support of the school and local organizations in helping the team thrive.
Programs like Beat the Streets, which provides the mats and schedules competitions for the school, and Play Study Win, which covers the costs of Dos Santos' salary and wrestling equipment, make his job easier.
But ultimately, the girls' eagerness has made the team more than just an experiment.
"This is my first time having such a high success coaching," he said of his team, which is open to girls in the fifth through 10th grades.
The girls also get tips from and practice with the boys team, which has been able to gain experience by competing in more overall matches. That helps when the girls face off against boys in Beat the Street competitions, said the school's athletic director, Kenneth Tejeda.
"A lot of our girls have won matches against boys," noted Tejeda, who eventually plans to add a separate high school team when the charter adds 11th and 12th grade classes in the coming years.
For team members, the experience has been rewarding.
"I feel more confident," said sixth-grader Nathaly Pichardo, 11, adding that learning new moves is a lot of fun.
For some of the girls, who will be moving on to high school in the coming years, finding a way to stay connected and continue to wrestle is very important.
"Wrestling has helped me over the years," said eighth-grader Shania Price, 13. "Not just to be a stronger athlete, but have a sounder mind and how to help people."
The team's first match of the year is scheduled for Jan. 9.