Sister act on Ukiah High School girls wrestling team

Ukiah High School wrestler Harmonie Roberts, Thursday Feb. 19, 2015 during practice. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Ukiah High School wrestler Harmonie Roberts, Thursday Feb. 19, 2015 during practice. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Girls wrestling has come a long way in the past decade, but it’s still, shall we say, the stepsister of high school sports in many ways.

Here’s an example: The North Bay League held its wrestling championships (boys and girls) Saturday at Cardinal Newman High. By quirk of the schedule, though, the female athletes had already competed in the North Coast Section wrestling championships a week earlier. So the NBL meet had no bearing on berths in the CIF State Girls Wrestling Championships, or even the state seedings. In effect, the NBL girls were wrestling for pride, and little more.

Fortunately, that pride is healthier than ever. Participation in girls wrestling is growing by the year, the competition level rising all the time.

“It’s become a lot harder since I was a freshman,” Ukiah senior Harmonie Roberts said. “Girls are better at a younger age. Also, colleges are opening up more. There are like 14 colleges with women’s wrestling now, and next year, there will be another five.”

And the Redwood Empire is proving to be fertile ground for the sport.

(See more photos of the Ukiah girls wrestling team)

Fifteen Empire girls qualified for the state championships — to be held Friday and Saturday in Visalia — by finishing first, second or third at the section tournament, and four of those young women emerged as champions: Harmonie Roberts at 101 pounds, her sister Alyssa at 116, Willits’ Gabby Agenbroad at 170 and Rancho Cotate’s Vickie Espinoza at 235.

The Roberts girls will not travel to Visalia alone. Three Ukiah teammates — juniors Angelina Canevari (at 137 pounds) and Kenya Henderson (170), and sophomore Lanie Brooks (126) — also qualified for CIF.

Ukiah is building a powerhouse in the sport, and the Roberts sisters are supplying much of the fuel.

Their father, Shane Roberts, also wrestled at Ukiah High, and went on to compete at Santa Rosa JC and Campbell University in North Carolina. But he was as surprised as anyone when Alyssa, just 6 or 7 at the time, took an interest in wrestling. Harmonie, then 8, quickly followed her.

For years, they wrestled against boys. There just weren’t many girls in the sport. And eventually it paid off. Harmonie, now a senior, has been one of the top local wrestlers during her time at Ukiah. Last year, she placed second at 106 pounds at the state championships. This year, she goes into the tournament seeded No. 3 at 101 pounds.

Harmonie will wrestle at Life University in Marietta, Ga., next year, where a women’s wrestling program started just last year.

Alyssa, a sophomore whose first love is soccer, may be just as talented as her older sister, but they take different approaches to wrestling. Harmonie said she has a more technical style and is stronger for her weight class, while Alyssa is a better defender. Alyssa said that Harmonie can do some things that are nearly impossible to emulate on the mat.

“She’s super flexible,” Alyssa said. “She’s really good with her hips, and it helps her maneuver. When she hits a move, it usually turns out better than it should have because of the way she uses her hips.”

The sisters have contrasting personalities, too.

“Harmonie is a really hard worker, very determined,” Shane Roberts said. “She’ll work as hard as she has to to be the best she can be. Where Alyssa, most things come naturally. She doesn’t work really, really hard, except this year she started to. And when she sets her mind to something, you’re not gonna stop her.”

Alyssa’s playfulness emerged when Harmonie was on the phone with a reporter, and the younger sister started chiming in with suggestions in the background.

“Sorry, she keeps interrupting,” the older sister said.

But Alyssa’s laid-back attitude can hurt her, too. She was academically ineligible for most of the wrestling season this year. She didn’t join the team until Feb. 9, in time for just one dual meet leading into the NCS championships. Considering the lack of work, it’s a bit amazing that she won the section title, pinning all four of her opponents along the way.

With Ukiah serving as host school, the Wildcat girls finished second to James Logan High at NCS. Shane Roberts believes they can land in the top 10 at Visalia if all five girls wrestle to their capabilities. Since the CIF unified its girls bracket in 2011, no Empire team has done better than Ukiah’s 20th-place finish last year.

The Wildcats clearly are the team to beat in local girls wrestling, and the Roberts family is largely responsible for the renaissance.

The girls got a boost this year when new boys wrestling coach Thomas Fragoza, who took over when longtime coach Gary Cavender retired, restored co-ed practices. Fragoza spent some time working with the girls, and kids like Harmonie and Alyssa Roberts were able to challenge themselves against boys on a daily basis.

“It was nothing but positive,” Shane Roberts said. “We have the same philosophy, coach Fragoza and I. We believe wrestling is great, but being a good person and doing something with your life, that’s what we want wrestling to help you do.”

Not that everything is equal in the world of high school wrestling. When Ukiah hosted the NCS girls championships, Shane Roberts figures, the tournament drew about 50 home fans, more or less a typical crowd. Had it been the boys section championships, he said, attendance would have been much bigger.

Still, there’s no denying the state of girls’ wrestling is in much better shape than it was before the Roberts sisters got to high school.

“Girls are getting way more recognition than they used to,” Alyssa said. “Just seeing how it was, with no girls getting recognition, to now where we’re getting a bunch, I think it’s doing good. But it will definitely get better.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.