Lady Chieftain wrestlers won't back down

Jake Newby
Shiprock wrestlers Chasitty Todacheenie, left, and Zhoniba Belone warm up on Monday before wrestling practice at Shiprock High School.

SHIPROCK – In the predominantly male sport of high school wrestling, Shiprock High is building a reputation for developing female wrestlers.

These females aren’t restricted to wrestling one another, either, since there is no high school wrestling division reserved for girls in New Mexico.

If a girl decides to join the wrestling team, she knows she’s signing up to grapple almost exclusively with boys. The four girls on the Shiprock wrestling team wouldn’t have it any other way.

Chasitty Todacheenie, Zhoniba Belone, Sapphire Williams and Chelsea Wheeler are the Lady Chieftains on the Shiprock wrestling team. Todacheenie, the only senior girl on the team, isn’t just someone the younger girls on the roster look up to — she’s a leader for the whole team, and one of two team captains.

On any given practice day in the Shiprock wrestling room, Todacheenie can be seen, and heard, leading the team’s warm-up routine. Then she gets to work improving her skills.

“Everyone on this team looks up to her, and it’s because of her work ethic,” Shiprock assistant coach Sean Hayes said. “She’s been wrestling since junior high, and she’s really come a long way.”

Todacheenie attended Navajo Prep as a freshman, a school without a wrestling program. She transferred to Shiprock that same year and wrestled for the Chieftains as a sophomore.

During her junior year, she became the team’s trainer for a sports medicine class grade. Now, after a year off, Todacheenie is embracing the ups and downs that come with the grueling nature of the sport, according to Hayes.

“She’s gotten hurt in a couple of matches, but you have to kind of drag her off the mat to get her to quit,” Hayes said.

Todacheenie, who wrestles at 120 pounds, got into wrestling when she was in the seventh grade. She said she uses the sport as a positive release for some not-so-positive experiences with bullying growing up.

“Me and my twin brother used to get beat up a lot, and I just got tired of it,” she said. “Someone told me ‘Hey, girls can join wrestling, did you know that? You should try out.’ And I did, and I just loved it.”

It all starts in practice for Toadacheenie. There, she and the other girls — with the exception of Wheeler, who is out indefinitely with a concussion — spend a couple of hours each day competing as hard as they would at an actual meet. Hayes said the hard-nosed precedent they've set in practices toughens them up for their matches.

"They're a mean, mean group, these girls here," Hayes said. "They've given their competition bloody noses and they've cross-faced some boys. They're very difficult to pin. And they've got wins on their record, as well."

Williams, a sophomore, said she was encouraged by Todacheenie to try out for wrestling two years ago. She committed fully to cross-country last year, opting not to wrestle as a freshman, but she couldn't stay away from the sport for long.

"The competition was calling her name, and I think that's why she came back," Hayes said. "She's very physical. A lot of guys step up and see a girl and expect an easy match, but our girls give them the opposite every time."

The 126-pound Williams said she's happy with the way her season has gone and is determined to build muscle during the off-season to improve her strength.

Zhoniba Belone, standing top left, Chasitty Todacheenie and Zelldan Clark warm up with their teammates on Monday during wrestling practice at Shiprock High School.

Belone, an eighth-grader, reminds Hayes of a younger Williams. He said the two push each other so hard in practice that they can be mistaken for rivals instead of teammates at times.

"It's funny, when you put Sapphire and Zhoniba together at practice, it's almost like a fight," Hayes said. "Sometimes they'll get up with bloody noses, bushy hair and busted lips."

Shiprock competed in the District 1-4A duals at Bronco Arena in Kirtland on Friday. After the Chieftains lost to Kirtland Central to fall to 1-2 as a team, they took on Newcomb to finish the day.

The last match for Shiprock pitted Todacheenie against Newcomb's Shaundale Davis. Between periods of that match, Todacheenie was visibly exhausted. Gasping for air, she took the bottom position to continue the match. When the ref blew his whistle to start the action, she looked to be outmatched as she struggled to get Davis off her back.

But less than a minute into the period, Todacheenie was able to perform a headlock takeover and score the fall to pick up the improbable victory.

"I thought I was beat," she said, struggling to breathe. "All the work I'm doing is starting to pay off."

Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.