Zoe Buteau practices with sophomore Jack Tibbetts as she prepares to compete in the Class B state championship tournament in Wells. Staff photo by Derek Davis

LISBON — Zoe Buteau is well aware she can make history Saturday by becoming the first girl to win a Maine high school wrestling championship.

“Yeah, I want to be the first girl. That would be awesome,” she said before practice Thursday. “I’ve gotten better at focusing on what I want to do, just with setting my goals this year. I’ve won regionals. So now my goal is to hopefully win states, but as long as I place at states that will be good.”

Wrestling against boys, the Oak Hill High junior has a 21-7 record for the Lisbon/Oak Hill cooperative team. She is 13-0 since dropping down to 120 pounds, the weight class at which she won the Southern regional championship last Saturday.

Only three other girls have won regional wrestling titles in Maine – but none was a state champion.

Buteau will need to win three matches Saturday to capture the 120-pound Class B state title at Wells High. She and Hannah Workman of Lincoln Academy, who finished third at 126 pounds at the Class B Southern regional, are the only girls competing at this year’s state championship meets.

“It’s a pretty tough feat, just being able to compete against the boys to begin with,” said Matt Rix, the longtime wrestling coach at Marshwood High. “And then you have to kind of be in a weight class where you can actually be competitive. The lighter the girls are, the strength disadvantage can be offset a little with skill and technique.”

‘THE RIGHT MOVE’

Oak Hill High junior Zoe Buteau looks to become the first girl to win a Maine high school wrestling championship. Buteau, who won the South regional title in the 120-pound weight class, will compete in the Class B state championship tournament in Wells on Saturday. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Buteau agrees that trying to outmuscle her male opponents is a bad strategy, though dropping down a weight class this season has somewhat offset the strength disparity. As a sophomore, Buteau was third in the 126-pound class at the regional meet, then went 0-2 at the state tournament.

“There are some guys who are still stronger than me, but if you get them caught in the right move when you wrestle them, they can’t use that muscle,” she said.

The first girl to win a regional championship was Reaha Goyetche of York, the 103-pound Western Class B champ in 2007. Camden Hills’ Logan Rich (2009, 103 pounds) and Hilary Merrifield (2014, 106 pounds) each won Eastern Class B titles.

Other girls have come close to winning a state championship, most notably Deanna Rix Betterman, the daughter of Matt Rix. She went on to wrestle against women internationally, placing twice in the World Championships.

Competing at 130 pounds as a Marshwood senior at the 2005 Class A tournament, Deanna Rix was vying to become the first girl in the nation to win a state title competing against boys. She lost in overtime, 2-1, against Sanford’s Shane Leadbetter. The next year, Alaska’s Michaela Hutchison became the first girl in the nation to win a state title wrestling against boys.

Maine saw a significant increase in the number of girls wrestling in high school after Deanna Rix’s success. When she was a senior, 54 girls wrestled in Maine. Three seasons later, there was an all-time high of 114.

“I think she did have an impact,” Matt Rix said of his daughter, adding that there was once a stigma about girls participating in wrestling. “Dee went out there with her makeup and pretty ponytail and they were like, ‘Wow, I guess it’s OK to be a girlie-girl and still wrestle.”

BEAT THE BOYS

Over the last eight seasons, the number of girls wrestling in Maine has varied considerably, as overall participation in the sport decreased 25 percent from 2011 (1,008 total wrestlers, 89 girls) to 2017 (754 wrestlers, 61 girls).

Buteau expects to have plenty of support at Saturday’s meet, including her brother, Danny. A 2017 graduate of Oak Hill, he was a four-time Maine state wrestling champion.

“Having the support of not only your team but your family, it’s just so much,” Zoe Buteau said. “It just feels like it gives you the energy that you can do it.”

Buteau also wrestles in all-girl tournaments. After her freshman year she traveled to Fargo, North Dakota, and placed sixth and seventh in two divisions at a prestigious national tournament. As an eighth-grader, she won a national tournament in Texas.

But for now, the goal is to beat the boys Saturday.

“I think this is something where she very much wants to be the first girl to win a state title. She’s very focused for it,” said Schyler Gagnon, co-coach for the Lisbon/Oak Hill team. “If she stays focused and sticks to her game plan it’s a very reasonable goal.”

RULE OVERTURNED

One person who will be rooting for her from afar is Lisa Nowak Wilkins.

In 1995, Lisa Nowak was a freshman at Mt. Ararat High who just wanted to have a chance to wrestle.

A Maine Principals’ Association rule at the time allowed boys to refuse to wrestle a girl in competition. If a boy refused, the girl’s team would be forced to substitute a male wrestler or forfeit the match. Nowak had just three matches as a freshman.

After she filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, the agency overturned the MPA rule in 1996. That made Maine the 20th state to approve co-ed wrestling.

Twenty-two years later, Maine is still waiting for its first female champion.

“It just feels like it’s a long time coming,” said Nowak Wilkins, 37, the mother of two boys. “It’s just showing that women deserve to be everywhere and (Buteau is) proving it through her actions and kicking some butt on the mat.”

Nowak Wilkins says she was often met with open hostility at wrestling meets.

“Absolutely. I had stuff thrown at me at wrestling meets. I remember one kid … I beat him and he quit the team. The moms of kids called me ‘whore.’ Just horrible things were said to me.”

Buteau said she feels accepted within Maine’s high school wrestling community. Still, there are occasions when the girl-versus-boy dynamic is strained.

“Still now you’ll get some nasty stares from opponents and you’ll see them looking at you, glaring at you, like, ‘Oh, she’s a girl. She’s not going to be good,’” Buteau said.

Does she take pleasure in beating the boys?

“Oh yeah, definitely. Especially when they take it too hard.”

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or:

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