No one gave them much of chance. So Sarah Shackett and Marilena DiPierro decided to prove the doubters wrong, and show them two cheerleaders could transform themselves into wrestlers alongside the boys of Wesley Chapel High School's wrestling team. "People would always say two cheerleaders couldn't do it," Marilena said. Never mind that Sarah, 15, a 93-pound sophomore, and Marilena, 14, a 95-pound freshman, sought to get on a team for which tryouts and training are so grueling that many of the male hopefuls quit.
"We usually have about 20 boys show up at the start, but before it's over I would say 10 or 12 of them are gone," said Wesley Chapel wrestling coach Brian Simmons. "It's a tough sport for anyone, let alone two cheerleaders."
But Sarah and Marilena stuck it out. Sarah recalls contacting Simmons last fall about her plans to go out for the team. The coach told her she would be treated like every other teammate and would not get special treatment because she is a girl. Then he welcomed both girls to take their shot.
"I don't think he thought we were going to go all the way through with it," Sarah said.
There were doubters on the team, too.
"I thought they would quit in a week," said junior teammate Chad Fee. "But they showed they really want to do the sport."
The girls quickly found out Simmons had not been kidding, as grueling practices began every day for two hours. Both Sarah, a varsity cheerleader, and Marilena, a junior varsity cheerleader, also continued on their cheerleading teams, going from one practice to the next.
Sarah said Simmons' running regimen hit her hard, but she pushed through, eventually completing a requirement to run a 5K in under 28 minutes. Many times the wrestling team would run past Sarah's cheerleading squad.
"They would cheer us on as we ran by," Sarah said, grinning.
The girls eventually made the team and earned the respect of their teammates and coaches. They weren't uncomfortable grappling with members of the opposite sex. In fact, Sarah said, being on the wrestling team was a great way to meet boys.
They also crossed paths with a couple of other female wrestlers at Land O'Lakes High and Hudson High.
A high point in the season came last month at a conference match at Anclote High.
Sarah wrestled up in the 112 weight class and placed fifth. Marilena placed eighth in the 93-pound weight class at that same meet. Sarah went 8-10 for the season, while Marilena said she didn't keep track of her record. For the girls, it was about competing.
As junior Nick Popolillo prepared for a work out Thursday in the school's wrestling training room, leading up to his bid for a state championship in Lakeland this weekend, he, too, gave the girls praise for their unlikely effort.
"They are tough little girls. If I was a girl, I wouldn't be wrestling," he said.
And they did it in a wrestling world where chauvinism can rear its head, according to assistant coach Jason De Rosa, a former All Air Force wrestler.
"They did all the work when others didn't," he said. "I'm proud of them and happy they are here."
Not only are the girls now wrestlers, they are excellent students. Sarah is an honors student with a 3.7 grade-point average, and Marilena has a 3.0 GPA. Sarah's mother, ShirleyAnn, is most proud of the dedication her daughter puts into her dreams.
"I think it's her perseverance, determination and will that is so remarkable to me," she said. "She came up with trying wrestling all on her own."
And both girls plan to try out for the team again next year.