Monday, on a busy day for the Illinois High School Association, the organization helped the rapidly growing sport of women’s wrestling grow even larger.
The IHSA board approved the recommendation to launch an individual girls wrestling state series, beginning during the 2021-22 school year. High school girls wrestling previously has held emerging sport status in Illinois, with female wrestlers from youth through high school able to wrestle for their high schools, for the most part – albeit often against boys. However, they competed in non-affiliated statewide tournaments with no official IHSA tournament in place.
That will change come the winter of 2021-22.
The announcement was almost universally well-received by those who have been promoting and competing in women’s wrestling.
Princeton High School launched its girls program last year with five wrestlers.
“The past few years [the girls state tournament] has been run by the IWCOA [Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Organization], and they have done a great job promoting and growing the sport,” Princeton Coach Steve Amy said. “There have been more colleges adding women’s wrestling as well, so it really makes sense that the IHSA adds it.
“Our girls work very hard, and now having their own state tournament gives them something to set their goals and efforts towards.”
Members of Princeton’s girls wrestling team were among those who took part in the area’s first dedicated high school girls wrestling tournament last winter. The inaugural Ottawa Girls Wrestling Invitational in historic Kingman Gym drew more than 50 competitors from 11 high school programs two days after Christmas.
The event saw four local champions – Putnam County exchange student Luna Gonzalez along with three hometown Lady Pirates, Casie Duncan, Amanda Simpson and Sara Meyer.
Ottawa’s already successful wrestling program saw an explosion of female competitors the past couple years, with as many as 14 in recent years. Eight girls finished the season a year ago – a number head coach Pete Marx expects to grow in light of the IHSA’s sanctioning of the sport.
“We’ve been pushing for this,” Marx said, “and we’re really excited. I think the more it’s promoted, girls wrestling is going to be a big thing. It’s a great alternative sport for girls in the winter, and the girls who have done it all have seemed to really enjoy it. ... It gives girls a chance to compete, and it’s an Olympic sport, for crying out loud. ...
“Every year Illinois has shown tremendous growth in girls wrestling, and some of the best salesmen are the girls who wrestle. Once girls realize they can practice against other girls and won’t have to compete against the boys, I think we’ll see more and more interest in participating.”
That’s music to the ears of Jake Yacko, a coach with the Streator Bullpups Youth Wrestling program, which boasts the two-time-defending Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation All-Girls State Meet team champions with a roster of more than 20 young female competitors.
“I saw it coming,” Yacko said of the IHSA’s sanctioning, “but I didn’t realize with everything going on with the coronavirus they were still working on it. The fact that they were able to pull this off in this type of environment is huge, and it shows that [the momentum youth girls wrestling has gained] is still going.
“It’s for the 2021-22 season, so we’re still going to have the upcoming seniors who won’t get that opportunity, but at least the IWCOA is still there for the girls this next year.”
The area’s most accomplished female wrestler – Somonauk junior-to-be Shea Reisel, a competitor on the national girls circuit and two-time sectional qualifier in the IHSA’s already-sanctioned boys state tournament – has mixed feelings on the announcement.
“I knew it was going to happen pretty soon, because Illinois is such a large state in girls wrestling,” Reisel said. “And I feel a little guilty for being selfish, because I know what a great thing this is for all the girls in Illinois, and we’ll have more opportunities than we had before.
“But one of my selfish goals is to not only make it to [the] IHSA Boys State [Wrestling Finals], but to do well at state. So when I heard that I might not have the opportunity to compete at boys state my senior year, it was just a little sad for me.”
Still, assuming wrestling season can go on as planned in this era of the coronavirus, Reisel has the chance – and the ability – to realize her dream of making it to boys state during her junior season before getting the opportunity to be one of the state’s inaugural IHSA girls state champions.
“That would be a good feeling,” she said.
– Shaw Media’s Kevin Hieronymus contributed to this report.