Last July, wrestling coach Darin McAfee finally received the news that he’d been waiting for: Union High School was starting a full-fledged girl’s wrestling program.
Fast forward seven months, and the Redhawks are state champions.
Behind five state qualifiers, the south Tulsa school won with a team total of 60 points, eight more than runner-up Bixby.
“It feels really great,” said McAfee, who was previously an assistant for the boy’s team. “It was a nail-biter. All the adversity we’ve had; and being a new team is hard to overcome.”
“Winning a championship is a really good feeling.”
It’s an amazing accomplishment for a program still in its infancy.
“We got the green light on it the year before COVID,” recalled McAfee on starting the program. “We started promoting it and had a few girls sign up, then the COVID year came and put the brakes on it. Athletic Director Emily Barkley was resilient in keeping the conversations going. We got the green light about the second week of July and we were able to hire a couple more coaches. We were able to get (former NCAA wrestler and MMA fighter) Gerald Harris and his wife, Nicci, and it went like wildfire after that.”
Sophomore Kali Hayden became the school’s first-ever individual girl’s wrestling state champion when she won the 185-pound title match by pinning Cilee Turner of Lexington in just 53 seconds.
“She was a brand-new opponent,” said Hayden. “I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t thinking out there. I just wanted to do my business and win the state title for my team and for myself.”
“Being a state champion is amazing,” added Hayden. “This was my first time being at state and it feels really good. It’s good to be recognized for who I am. In the hallways, people are like, good job, or I saw you in the newspaper or I saw you on the Union website. They’re proud of what the team has done.”
Entering high school, Hayden was looking for a sport to participate in. When she heard they were adding a girl’s wrestling team, she jumped at the opportunity to prove that girls could excel at the sport.
“Guys were like, ‘girls can’t do this sport because they’re girls’,” recalled Hayden. “I was like, you know what? Let’s bet on that.”
After years of coaching boys on the mat, McAfee wasn’t sure what it would be like to coach a girl’s team.
“I was apprehensive at first,” admitted McAfee. “The more we got going with it, though, the more I enjoyed it. I don’t see myself ever going back to the boys any time soon. I really, really enjoy it.”
“The difference between coaching boys and girls is the girls ask a lot more questions and are more of a perfectionist when it comes to their workouts and learning moves,” added McAfee. “We could show three moves to the boys, and they would just kind of roll with it. If we practice three moves with the girls, they will stop us because they want to perfect each move first.”
Union is known across the state for its outstanding athletic facilities. Recent upgrades to the wrestling facilities have been a big hit.
“Our new facility is a great thing and it’s a great draw for people who are looking at getting into the program,” said McAfee. “Our wrestling room is state of the art. There’s not another room like it that I know of. We’d had the same two rooms at Union since the 1950s. It was down in the basement and was called “The Dungeon.” Taking a new student that might have an interest in wrestling and showing them what we have now is very intriguing. There’s a lot of colleges that don’t have what we have.”
It doesn’t appear the Redhawks will be one-hit wonders, either. None of the team’s state qualifiers were seniors, and the junior high squad won a state championship last month.
“We’ve probably got at least four or five strong years left,” claimed McAfee. “We’ve got a great youth program coming up as well. You’ll see multiple years of us.”