Overhills wrestling coach Patricia Shaffer speaks on breaking longtime stigmas surrounding females in the sport, and why she chose to start the historic journey this year.
SPRING LAKE — Patricia Shaffer’s trailblazing journey got off to an expectedly bumpy start during the preseason meet and greet for the newly-formed All American Conference this summer.
It was there — during a breakout session for the league’s wrestling coaches — that provided an awkward, yet seminal moment in a room notoriously dominated by males.
“The coaches are like, ‘Oh, this is for the wrestling meeting.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m in the right place,’” said Shaffer, who agreed to lead the Overhills wrestling program this year, becoming the first woman to do so in state history according to representatives from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
“They weren’t snotty about it ... and they were super nice. But it was just that one moment where it was just inconceivable that I was in the right place.”
Shaffer was in the right place again Wednesday, shouting timely instructions and encouragement from her seat during the team’s 54-18 home win over nearby rival Western Harnett.
The victory brought Overhills to 3-3 on the young season and featured appearances from veterans Liliana Lizarde and Hunter Berryhill, both of whom share a unique history with the first-year coach.
Though Shaffer hadn’t taught at the prep level prior to this season, her yearly stints with the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office Police Athletic & Activities League (PAL) wrestling club provided a chance to influence promising talent.
“I was helping at the club (PAL) with them and so, they knew me. And it lends me that credibility that those guys ... already think of me as a coach,” she said.
Already accomplished athletes coming into the 2021-22 campaign, Lizarde placed third at 113 pounds in the girls’ state tournament last season while Berryhill made his second straight states appearance.
As the two-sport senior prepares for a third consecutive appearance and shot at a state individual title, he’s emboldened to have the assistance of a familiar face leading practices.
“It’s awesome to see that women’s wrestling is growing, and not only that, that we have women coaches,” Berryhill said after improving his undefeated streak this year to 6-0.
“I respect her with everything that I have because she takes time out of her day to come out here. ... We had nobody, and she stepped to the plate and she took a really important role.”
He also noted the additional training Shaffer underwent this offseason to prepare for the jump into high school athletics, and admires her dedication to the team in fulfilling day-to-day operations.
In turn, Shaffer expresses gratitude for Berryhill and her core of leaders as the Jags try to integrate a host of freshmen and first-time wrestlers.
“He’s absolutely instrumental to the program,” Shaffer said.
“I’ll have ideas and have looked at film ... but then he’s got the tips and the techniques, and the real on-the-mat experience that translates to the kids in a way that I can’t.
“It wouldn’t be this kind of program without that kind of experience and without captains that can lead it from the front like that.”
Lizarde, currently 5-1 on the year, was joined by Shaffer at various wrestling tournaments this summer. In addition to providing an example on the mat, the Lady Jags junior is helping recruit more girls into the program.
Of those prospects is Shaffer’s daughter, Jocelyn, a freshman who was the deciding factor in ultimately vying for the lead position.
“She is the most vocal, liberated kind of person,” Shaffer said of her daughter.
“If there was a teacher who wanted the kids to help bring some books out of the book room and is looking for a couple of strong guys, she’s the one who’s gonna stand up and say, ‘Girls can carry books.’”
It’s a revolutionary spirit Coach Shaffer says was missing when she was in high school, having no women participating in the sport neither as players or coaches.
Now, fresh off leading the Jags to back-to-back conference wins in convincing fashion, she is accepting her role as barrier-breaker.
“It’s exciting for me. I love it. I love being that person,” Shaffer said.
“It’s who I am. It’s who I’m raising — it’s where we’re all headed. And I’m excited to be that face. I think it’s super fun.”
Overhills is back in action Wednesday, Dec. 8 when it travels to All American foe Westover.
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910 230-2040.