Sunday February 27, 2011

BENNINGTON -- Seventeen seconds stood between Rachel Hale and history.

Ahead of Spaulding's Cody Jolley by a point in Saturday night's 103-pound Vermont state final, all Hale had to do was fend off a reversal when action resumed for the waning seconds of the third period. Just hang on.

"If he gets out, we're going to overtime and I didn't want to go to overtime," she said. "I wanted to beat him right there."

Hale seized her chance -- and chalked one up for the girls.

The Mount Anthony Union High School freshman fought off a pair of near-pins early in the match to pull out an electric 10-9 decision at Kates Gym and become the first girl in Vermont -- and only the third in the nation -- to win a wrestling state championship against the boys.

Once time expired, turning her slim lead into a championship, Hale sprang off of the mat, arms raised in triumph. No more ifs or whens. "Can she do it?" was a thing of the past.

"You could tell at the end it was like the weight of the world was off her back," Mount Anthony coach Scott Legacy said. "It was hard these past few weeks."

"This has been a goal of mine for a long time," said Hale, the top seed in her weight class with a 45-8 record after Saturday. "I feel awesome right now.

"I've worked all season for this match, so it means so much to me to win and know that all the hard work I put in paid off."

It was one of two landmark firsts on the day for the Patriots, who went on to win their national-record 23rd consecutive state championship in comfortable fashion.

About 15 minutes after Rachel Hale made history, her older brother Zak Hale captured the 119-pound crown. Serenaded with cheers of "Two-times Hale" from Mount Anthony students in the crowd, he ensured they would also be Vermont's first brother-sister championship duo, and the nation's second after the Hutchison siblings, Michaela and Eli, accomplished the feat in 2006 in Alaska.

Both of the Hales began wrestling at around age 4, said their father, Jon Hale. Zak had already brought home one state championship a year ago and when it came time to defend his own title this year, he said Rachel's big win provided a huge boost.

"I'm really, really proud of my sister," Zak said. "She's come a long ways, she's worked really hard."

Zak said he was concerned at the start of the year about whether or not his sister would be accepted by the rest of his teammates. But his sister didn't waste any time proving she could hang with the best in the state.

"She had to wrestle off a kid that's very good, who was the two-time JV state champion and she had to earn her way on," Legacy said of Hale, the first girl to make his vaunted varsity squad.

Keeping one eye on competing for a girls national championship in the future, Rachel wouldn't have it any other way.

"I like wrestling with all the guys better, because all the guys are a lot better wrestlers," she said. "They treat me like a guy in the wrestling room and then when I go and wrestle with the girls it's easier."

However, things can get uncomfortable for the opponent when a girl is competing in such a physical, male-dominated sport.

A week and a half after an Iowa boy defaulted on his chance to wrestle for a state championship rather than compete against a female grappler there, Jolley found himself in a similar situation.

"That came up a lot in talks," Jolley said. "Friends, family my grandpa is here, he didn't want me to wrestle [her] but I did."

Jolley had already faced a girl in the opening round and pinned her in 45 seconds. In fact, seven girls suited up across the different classes, but Hale was the only one to advance past her first match in the championship bracket.

When Hale wrestled Jolley earlier this year, she pinned him in under a minute.

"It's a very small state, so it's either a girl or nothing," Jolley said. "So I have to take it."

And of all the places and teams in which a girl could make history, having it happen at the home of Vermont's perennial powerhouse sounds like a good fit.

"We might as well have the first [female champion], right?" Legacy said. "To have it at home? That's pretty cool."

The newest and rarest member of Vermont's wrestling royalty said she thinks it could happen again if the effort matches the ambition.

"If you put your mind to it, any girl could do this, too," Rachel Hale said.