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Girls wrestling builds momentum

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Alexis Ross of Fort Dodge hugs her brother, Damarion, at the girls state meet in Waverly.

Girls wrestling is here to stay.

The steady increase in participation numbers proves the need is there, and after 376 athletes competed in the second annual IWCOA Girls State Championships on Saturday, the sport’s growing popularity again took center stage.

In 2013, there were 36 girls competing on IHSAA boys sanctioned teams. Four years later, there was 93.

Last season, another growth spurt surfaced: a 101 percent increase, to 187 participants. During the inaugural IWCOA tournament in 2019, a total of 87 competitors were entered.

This season as schools started putting together teams and girls took interest, the number rose 299 percent to 559 girls wrestlers in Iowa.

This past weekend at the state tournament put on by the IWCOA, there were 376 competitors, 289 more than the previous season.

The trend needs to continue for the sport to be sanctioned by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. Currently, girls are still members of the boys program. They can still compete in boys tournaments and duals, but eventually, the idea is to field enough teams to gain IGHSAU sanctioning.

According to Jason Eslinger, Assistant Director of the IGHSAU, fifteen percent of the member schools have to commit to sponsoring a program — a number that equates to about 50 schools in Iowa.

Eslinger said that as of this season, 18 schools had officially filed.

I recently had an exclusive interview with Joan Fulp, the USA Wrestling Girls High School Development committee member. Fulp said it took 20 years to get six states to hold a championship, and during the 2018-19 campaign, eight new states were on board. Five more were added to the total this year, and an additional two will hold a championship in 2021, bringing the count to 21.

“With 15 states adding some type of championship in just two years, and 15 additional states holding an ‘unofficial’ championship invitational event (like Iowa), we believe the majority of states could be on board within five years,” Fulp said.

In one way or another, a number of states continue to advance their efforts to get more exposure for girls wrestling.

“Every state has added these opportunities, according to there state bylaws and procedures,” Fulp said. “Not all were ‘sanctioned,’ even though that is s commonly-used term. Some states have added a girls division to their championship series instead of going through adding a ‘new sport’ or an official sanctioning process.

“Some are still in emerging sport status, or are holding an invitational (tournament to award champions).”

The Messenger area has been a big part of Iowa’s recent surge. Humboldt fielded its first team with 17 wrestlers this season, and Algona had a squad of seven. East Sac County had four wrestlers at state, and South Central Calhoun had an individual as well.

Fort Dodge freshman Alexis Ross and St. Edmond sophomore Elly Berry took their first steps as a third-place finisher and a state participant, respectively.

The biggest thing to keep girls wrestling on the rise is the chance to compete against other girls. Fulp believes that message will continue moving forward.

“Opportunity,” Fulp said. “When girls are allowed to wrestle their own gender, and coaches open their wrestling room door to females, girls are going to walk in. Parents are more willing to allow their daughters to wrestle when the playing field is equal.

“Female athletes agree — they want to wrestle their own gender.”

Girls have been competing in AAU tournaments and national tournaments, but Humboldt’s Kendal Clark may be more of the norm as the sport starts to take off in Iowa. Clark, who has played basketball her entire life, decided to give both basketball and wrestling a try this season.

It proved to be the right choice for Clark, who won the 170-pound state championship. Though she wasn’t raised on the sport, she is the kind of cross-over athlete that will help to evolve girls wresting in a more rapid fashion.

Newcomers and experienced wrestlers getting into the wrestling room together is a starting point. Now, getting younger athletes to give it a try is key — knowing that once they get to the high school level, there will be more females involved and less isolation through co-ed pressure.

Education is important as well; coaches must be open to teaching and encouraging girls at the fundamental levels.

“Support for coaches and athletic directors who are new to girls wrestling (is critical),” Fulp said. “It’s an exciting time with the explosion of girls stepping on the mat. All educators and coaches should have the support needed to do their best and excel when working with both male and female athletes.

“Our committee has created several coaches’ guides to help with education.”

The story of girls wrestling is still in its infancy stages. There will be chapters on Ross’s journey — a wrestler since she was four years old who wants to add an Iowa state championship to her AAU success.

There will be stories like Berry, who started in seventh grade and has shown gradual progression ever since.

And there needs to be more like Clark, who is only a few months into her career, but a quick learner who found a comfort zone and became a champion.

The next chapter is yet to be written, but with opportunity and education, young girls will someday have a chance to etch their own names into the annals of Iowa girls wrestling — thanks to those who are blazing trails today.

Chris Johnson is Assistant Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @ChrisJohnson_17

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