There are lots of stories that paint a picture of Tiffani McNelis as a wrestler.
However, none quite captures the sheer excellence she’s achieved in the sport like the one that her club coach at Modern Day Gladiators, Gino Frank, likes to tell.
It starts at a Northeast Regional event last year when McNelis had to wrestle in a boys’ freestyle competition. That isn’t the fascinating part. McNelis wrestles against boys all the time.
The story began when she was approached with the idea of also wrestling in a Greco-Roman event. The catch is that Greco-Roman is a style rarely wrestled by girls her age, so, in order to compete, she would have to do it against boys as a mere novice in the style. McNelis has trained in the style plenty of times before with the Modern Day Gladiators, but never actually competed in an event in the style.
McNelis entered anyway and, in her first bout, defeated her male opponent by “six or seven points,” according to Frank.
That is Tiffani McNelis, the wrestler, in a nutshell.
“She’s dedicated,” Frank said before a practice back in May. “Always here at practice, very coachable and fearless in her approach to wrestling. Those three things right there, I brag about her all the time to people that, if she keeps up everything that she’s doing, we could see her in the Olympics one day.”
Stewartstown roots: McNelis is from Stewartstown and just completed her eighth grade year at South Eastern Middle School, which feeds into Kennard-Dale High School.
Wrestling in that part of York County gained notoriety recently thanks to Chance Marsteller, one of the most accomplished high school wrestlers in Pennsylvania history. Marsteller was a four-time PIAA Class 3-A state champion and never lost a match in high school, going 166-0 as a Ram.
Yet, since he graduated in 2014, there hasn’t been a noticeable spike in interest in the sport in the K-D region, despite his huge success. Involvement on McNelis’ junior high team was sparse this past season, a clear indication that any excitement stemming from Marsteller’s achievements hasn’t caught on at the younger ages.
McNelis, however, was into wrestling long before Marsteller became a household name in York County and beyond. Her involvement in the sport goes back to second grade when she and her older brother, Brody Baublitz, started wrestling.
“My older brother wrestled and he kept picking on me, and I wanted to beat him up when I was younger,” McNelis said.
McNelis was only 7 at the time, which means, now at 14, she’s been wrestling for half of her life.
In those seven years, wrestling has taken McNelis to places she never could’ve imagined without the sport. She’s been up and down the East Coast, Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois and North Dakota, and to Canada and Colombia, internationally. She competed at the 2016 Pan American Games in Medellin, Colombia, by far the best experience she’s had to date.
“Meeting different people and wrestling with people who are the elite of the most elite of different countries is a really cool experience,” she said.
Beginning in early-May and running through the summer months, McNelis experiences her busiest period. It’s when most national and international competitions take place. During those months, wrestling is nearly a daily activity.
McNelis works out with Danny Whitenak out of University of Maryland Baltimore County when she’s not practicing with Modern Day Gladiators. She also has a nutrition coach and powerlifting coach.
It all might seem like a lot for a 14 year old, but she knows her limits.
“We always allow her to tell us what her body needs, and she’s pretty good at knowing when she knows she needs a break or when she doesn’t need to have a break,” Tiffani’s mother, Tracy McNelis, said.
Wrestling at either 138 or 143 pounds, or 65 kilograms, McNelis’ early-career success has proven that the hard work is paying off. She qualified for Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota, this month; took first and second at the Nuway Summer Nationals last year while competing in two separate age groups; and is a three-time Maryland state champion and eight-time Pennsylvania state champion. She’s already rated as a future Olympic prospect, according to her Trackwrestling profile.
All of this has set her up for a massive opportunity beginning this fall, when she’ll attend Wyoming Seminary Prep School in Kingston, Luzerne County, and compete for the first prep school in the nation to offer an all-girls’ wrestling program.
New program at Wyoming Seminary: Erin Tomeo Vandiver knew it was only a matter of time before Wyoming Seminary — commonly referred to as Sem — would add a girls’ wrestling program.
Historically, the prep school is one of the most forward-thinking schools in the nation, dating back to 1844, when it first opened. It was the first co-ed prep school in the country. It began offering female athletic opportunities in the early 1900s. Beginning this fall, the school will offer the first all-girls’ wrestling program at a prep school in the country.
“Wyoming Seminary’s vision and direction is so progressive for female equality,” said Vandiver, who was hired to be the girls’ team coach in April. “With the boys having a very successful wrestling program and their head coach, Scott Green, has been making a push for many years. This idea and process started many years ago and it’s finally coming to fruition.”
Vandiver has a storied background in wrestling, serving as an assistant coach for the U.S. National Team since 2009. She was a 2001 and 2006 world team member. She’ll stay on with USA Wrestling as an assistant through the world championships in August before turning her full attention to Sem.
Shortly after Vandiver was hired as the girls’ coach, McNelis became the team’s first-ever commitment, making her decision April 28 after being accepted to the school in February.
“The fight, the grit and then just seeing her in the practice room training, she just looks at home on the mat,” Vandiver said about McNelis. “She has fun, she looks at home, she’s a great kid, a coachable kid and the perfect age. She can come to Wyoming Seminary for her four full years of high school and four years of great freestyle training on a girls’ team, so it just made a lot of sense in a lot of ways.”
Sophie Smith, a rising sophomore from North Dakota, quickly followed McNelis as the team’s second commitment and, since then, the program has put together a full roster. The process of forming a new team wasn’t difficult, with interest levels through the roof for the first-of-its-kind opportunity, according to Vandiver.
Girls’ wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, with more than 5,000 new participants every year, according to Vandiver. Right now, there are more than 20,000 girls wrestling throughout the U.S. at the high school level, but they’re mostly refined to small pockets of the country. Only seven states sanction girls’ wrestling at the high school level, and Pennsylvania isn’t one of them. Similarly, there are only 30 college programs that offer women’s wrestling programs, so options are limited.
That’s what makes the Sem opportunity so important for the growth of the sport. It’s the first school that will allow girls from anywhere in the country to come and compete at the high school level, while getting elite coaching and training in freestyle wrestling.
“(Girls' wrestling is) popular in folkstyle, but the thing is, we’re not getting the girls to transition over into freestyle, the international style,” Vaniver said. “We’re losing them after junior high or high school. So that’s a big purpose and direction of this program, to give girls who might be the only girl on a boys’ team a place to train on a girls’ team, while getting a world-class education and while having a freestyle focus.”
With so few schools and teams at the high school level offering girls’ wrestling, it would seem that putting together a competition schedule would be difficult.
However, the team at Sem won’t compete like your typical high school team, with the season taking place during the winter and multiple matches being held each week. Instead, the team will do a lot of training in freestyle and follow the schedule of United States Wrestling, the governing body for Olympic-style wrestling.
It’ll be a year-round schedule, peaking during the spring and summer when most national and international competitions are held. Vandiver said the team will do reciprocal training with teams from other countries, going to their camps but also inviting them to train at Sem. The team will take part in other dual meets, such as Beat the Street Philadelphia and Beat the Street New York, while also competing against other all-girls' clubs.
“It’s kind of year-round, so we’re not looking to compete like the normal high school season where it’s two or three times a week,” Vandiver said. “We’re going to do a lot more training and preparing and then peaking for larger events.”
Busy summer first: Right now, McNelis is in Fargo preparing for the Cadet Nationals that will take place July 13-22.
That's her current focus.
The idea of attending and wrestling for Sem, however, isn’t far off. It's less than two months away before she moves from her Stewartstown home.
Tracy said she plans to make the nearly 2½-hour drive once or twice a month to see Tiffani as she adjusts to living on her own.
All the competitions in other parts of the country and around the world have prepared Tiffani for what she’s about to experience at Sem.
It’s the step she needs to make, however, to reach the lofty aspirations she's set.
The idea of the Olympics isn’t just a vision Frank envisioned for Tiffani. It’s one she has for herself.
“My goals are to get on a world team… and then possibly the Olympics,” Tiffani said as straight-faced and serious as ever.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org