Orange Lutheran sophomore Kacey Schafer never set out to become a wrestler.
But sometimes life leads us down a path we may least expect. So while Schafer never planned to choose girls wrestling, she quickly learned that the path, and the sport, would choose her.
While in middle school, Schafer’s cousin introduced her to wrestling through a summer club program. As a former competitive gymnast, she instantly connected with the sport and decided to pursue girls wrestling as a high school student-athlete.
It was Schafer’s dream to be a Lancer, and although many of the surrounding area high schools had established girls wrestling teams, Orange Lutheran did not. This detail did not discourage her. After expressing interest and meeting with the OLu wrestling coaching staff, she arrived on campus in the fall of 2018 as the sole member of the Lancers girls varsity wrestling team.
“The first day, we were kind of in awe of Kacey’s great attitude, on top of the fact that she didn’t care that it was going to be hard,” says OLu wrestling head coach, Joe List. “She didn’t care that it was going to be a challenge. It’s one of the things I love about Kacey. She has no problem being the first.”
Undeterred by the lack of female teammates, Schafer decided that her desire to be a wrestler outweighed any hesitancy she may have felt from being the only girl at her school to participate in a male-dominated sport. She considers herself less a trailblazer and more just a high school athlete pursuing her passion, even if that means creating her own path.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” says Schafer. “I just wanted to start something that I had a lot of fun with. Even though I got pretty beat up the first few months, it made me want to fight back even more.”
Since girls wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports in CIF, there are many opportunities for Schafer to represent the Lancers, primarily at tournaments. But being welcomed into the OLu wrestling program also meant that she would receive the same coaching and training as her male counterparts.
“One thing we’ve done with Kacey is that we don’t treat her any different than anyone else on the team,” says List. “We never want to tell a wrestler no if they are willing to put in the work.”
Schafer spent her first year of competition, under the guidance of OLu alum and Lancer wrestling coach Ryan List, focused on her development. What she lacked in technique, she more than made up for in strength. Her years of gymnastics training had allowed her to develop a level of flexibility, body awareness, and core strength not often seen on the wrestling mat. Her initial goal was to make it through the entire season.
Not only did Schafer complete her freshman season competing in the 106-pound division, but she also qualified for the first round of CIF-SS girls wrestling individual championships. She ended her season just one match win away from advancing to the CIF Master Meet, and she took the entire experience as something to learn and grow from as she prepared for this year.
“That’s the thing with wrestling…you never really lose,” says Schafer. “If you lose, you learn way more than you would winning.”
This season, Schafer has been intentional about working on her technique. With the help of new OLu wrestling coach Heber Castillo, who also serves as a training partner for U.S. wrestler and Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis, she has already seen marked improvement, including placing third earlier this month at the Lady Saints Tournament.
Quickly establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the girls wrestling community, Schafer’s goals for this season include not only qualifying for the CIF Masters Meet but a top-three finish in CIF and a spot at the California State Meet. And there’s no other place she would rather be to achieve these goals than at OLu.
“It means a lot to me that I get to represent Orange Lutheran and show that there’s a girls wrestling team,” says Schafer. “Girls wrestling is a huge community, and we are all family…My faith has definitely helped me remember that God has a plan for me. I feel blessed because I know how much work I’ve put in. It just makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
While there have been a few female wrestlers in the past who have competed for OLu, none have been as committed or as dynamic as Schafer has shown so early in her career. Coach List hopes that her example will inspire future Lancers who are interested in joining the sport.
“We’ve created a sense of belonging,” says List. “We all want a place where we feel comfortable, where people accept us…and we’ve really tried to do that with Kacey, in particular. At the end of the day, we just want her to do her own personal best. I can’t say enough good things about Kacey because of who she is and her enthusiasm for the sport.”
Watch Kacey Schafer in action this week as she represents OLu at her home tournament – the Lancer Open – beginning Friday, December 20, when more than 30 schools will be on campus to compete in the all-girls wrestling tournament.