Just over two years ago — a lifetime in some respects, a blink of an eye in others — I wrote about the Streator Bullpups Wrestling Club and the exponential growth, literally, of the girls portion of its program, going from one girl in 2013-14 to two in 2014-15; from two in 2014-15 to four in 2015-16.
Since I wrote that article, things with the Bullpups — and girls wrestling nationwide — have just kept getting bigger and bigger.
The following season, two of Streator's young female grapplers, Lily Gwaltney and Ashlyn Yacko, placed at state, with Lily advancing to the Women's National Championships and placing fifth.
Later in 2017, former Olympian and current University of Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands submitted a proposal to have women's wrestling given the "emerging sport" status, the first step toward making NCAA women's collegiate wrestling a reality. It already is an emerging sport and closing in on college championship competition status in the NAIA, with 19 of a required 25 schools fielding teams, according to an Associated Press article.
And already in 2018, a year not yet three months old, Illinois for the first time saw a young woman, Oak Lawn Richards freshman Mia Palumbo, win a match at the IHSA Individual State Finals (two matches, in fact, this was no fluke) and that Streator Bullpups Wrestling program I wrote about a couple years back send 10 — TEN!!! — girls to the All-Girls State Tournament earlier this month.
When I went to a tournament down in Pontiac back in 2016 and watched Streator's then four-girl team compete against a gym full of boys, then-assistant coaches Luke Gwaltney and Jake Yacko told me it was just the beginning.
They weren't kidding.
This year's wrestling club started with 62 kids according to the now co-coaches, 17 of them girls. By the close of the season, that number dropped (as it often does in all youth sports, especially ones as demanding as wrestling where there is no instant payoff like a goal scored or a swinging-bunt single for participation) down just under 30, with a staggering 10 girls not only sticking with the sport but earning bracket spots at the state tournament. Eight of them scored top-five finishes.
"Everyone (at the state tournament) was coming up to us asking, 'How are you bringing all these girls? What's the secret?' and now the kids' schools are taking notice," Jake Yacko said. "It's incredible what's happening.
"And the wins. That's the crazy part."
Take, for example, Coach Gwaltney's other daughter, Isabel.
"She didn't win a match two years ago," her father said. "She won two matches last year, then won six matches this year and got her first first place, three for the season. And that's against boys."
"All against boys," Coach Yacko added.
Or Layla Vaughn and Sophia Macias, both second-place finishers at girls state this year despite not being in the program at all a couple years ago. Lilly Mattingly was one of the first four (subtle March Madness reference there) of Streator girls wrestling two and a half years ago along with the Gwaltney sisters and Ashlyn Yacko. Mattingly, too, has stuck with it and found more and more success, scoring a fourth-place state finish earlier this month.
That women's wrestling — both here and nationally — is growing is undoubtable.
It's made things a lot more exciting for the girls who started it all in these parts a few years ago.
"I didn't think any other girls would join, because all the girls kept saying, 'It's a boys sport and only boys can do it,' " said Ashlyn Yacko, who during one stretch this winter won 10 consecutive matches wrestling boys. "Now a few years later, all my friends have joined the team. They all got into it, and now you see all the girls getting first-place (finishes at tournaments) and more girls want to join. ...
"It was really cool, because every single tournament we went to all the coaches were like, 'Whoa! You have a lot of girls!' and some of the best teams are coming to see us because they can't believe it."
"It was weird walking into state with so many girls this year," Lily Gwaltney said, "because me and Ashlyn were the only ones who made it there before. Now everybody else was there with us. It was definitely cooler.
"It's more fun. When everybody started coming, I was like, 'Yay! I don't have to wrestle the same girl over and over again in practice,' and that made me want to keep wrestling even more."