Hergott dons stripes, fights through barriers
STANDISH-STERLING – Back in February, a Kansas high school's decision not to allow a woman to officiate one of its boys basketball games made national news.
Standish-Sterling's Heather Hergott had never heard of Michelle Campbell, the official that found out minutes before tip-off that she wasn't welcome. But she knows something of what Campbell must have felt.
A collarbone injury ended Hergott's high school wrestling career, but she wasn't about to give up the sport. She turned to officiating, became certified to referee at the youth level up to age 14 and this year officiated at three meets.
It could have been more. Twice she showed up at youth meets only to be turned away because some felt that as a girl she wasn't qualified to carry an official's whistle. This despite the fact there were girls wrestling on the same mats with boys at those same meets.
“At one meet I got there and they said they had enough boys to ref, so they didn't need me,” Hergott said. “At another one they just came right out and said they wouldn't allow girl refs, even though they had girls wrestling.
“It doesn't bug me too much, though. I love wrestling and I'm going to do this no matter what people say to me.”
The number of girls wrestling at the high school level in Michigan has exploded in recent years. The MHSAA doesn't currently sanction girls wrestling teams (though there are non-school associated girls meets throughout the state). Girls who want to wrestle in a school uniform wrestle mostly against boys, a sight that has become more and more common since the turn of the century.
There were the trailblazers, of course. Buena Vista's Cynthia Herrald was the first girl to make the individual state finals in 1999. Amy Berridge of Martin became the first girl to win a match – and, eventually, a medal – at the individual state finals in 2004. This year, C.C. Weber started for Goodrich's Division 3 state championship team, individually was 53-16 and a state finals qualifier, and was part of an ESPN feature on girls in wrestling.
Hergott idolized Jessica Malenski, who wrestled at Ogemaw Heights at the start of the decade and for awhile was the only female wrestler in the NEMC. By the time Malenski graduated in 2002, that had changed.
“I watched Jessica a lot,” Hergott said. “I didn't realize how hard it was for girls because there are so many now. Most people don't even notice any more.
“But once I started trying to ref I could see what they went through.”
It didn't hurt Hergott that she comes from a wrestling family. Her dad Jim has coached the Standish-Sterling varsity wrestling team for several years and her brother Michael was a regional qualifier during his Panther career.
“I wrestled with my brother when he was in ninth grade,” Hergott said. “When I told my mom (Dawn) and dad that I wanted to wrestle (competitively), at first they laughed, but then they told me to go for it and totally supported me.”
"At first I wondered if she would be able to handle it," Jim Hergott said. "But the first time I went out with her, when I started showing her moves, she already knew them. She'd been around wrestling for 10 years and just from watching she had a good idea of what to do."
Her wrestling career started off strong, but a collar bone broken in seventh grade continued to cause problems as she got older.
“I just kept injuring myself,” she said. “I really wish I could still wrestle but my doctor said it wouldn't be a good thing. It's really not worth getting hurt again.”
As it turned out, they injury could take the girl out of wrestling, but it couldn't take wrestling out of the girl.
“I really love wrestling, but since I can't anymore, I decided to referee instead,” she said. “In sixth grade at my first girls meet I saw my first girl ref. Since then I've wanted to do it.
“A lot of people think I don't know what I'm talking about just because I'm a girl,” she added. “I get it from the side of the mat sometimes that I made a horrible call 'because I'm a girl.'
"I think there are coaches who will question her because she's a female," Jim Hergott said. "But the people that know her, the ones that know how much time she's spent in and around the sport, they don't question her knowledge.
"She's always with us talking about new rules, old rules, talking about how they apply. Honestly, she has more knowledge than some coaches do.
"I do think it's odd that some of the same people who have daughters wrestling might object to a female ref, but from what I've seen it's mainly people that don't know how much she's been around wrestling."
Hergott's goal is to become MHSAA certified and officiate at high school matches. She expects there will be some resistance, but says she's prepared for that. Her father agrees.
"She has a good presence on the mat," he said. "She's had some coaches question calls, and I don't know if it was because of her age or because she's a girl, but she doesn't put up with it. If she needs to send someone off the mat she does it, and a couple of times that's happened she's had guys come back to her later and apologize.
"I hope Heather gets the time to develop into a really good ref. I'm impressed with her knowledge, and if she does pursue this (at the high school level) I think she'll be very good at it."
There s also a precedent – the MHSAA lists two female wrestling officials in its registry. Nicole Sanom, who wrestled for four years at Warren Mott, is the first, and has been at it for six years.
“I want to officiate at the high school level for sure,” Hergott said. “The only real problem I have is if I have to catch one of the bigger guys from going off the mat out of bounds. I don't want someone to hit the floor but I probably can't catch them.
“I don't think a high school team would try to stop me, but they might. You never know. My parents warned me people might react that way. But I can't worry about what other people think; I just have to concentrate on always getting better at it and doing the best I can.”