Growing number of high school girl wrestling teams in Ohio

By Steve Blackledge - The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS (AP) — Ask any of the nearly 500 girls statewide participating in high school wrestling why they do it, and expect a wide variety of answers.

“As a female, it’s empowering to be in a sport that features physicality,” said Olentangy Orange senior Anna Grabau, who dropped basketball to join the Pioneers’ first girls wrestling team.

“At first, I did it just for fun because a few coaches at school and some of my friends said I should try it. It’s turned into something I take really seriously. There’s a lot of anxiety and stress involved. Ultimately, it’s a blast to be a pioneer of sorts in such a fast-growing sport.”

Like Grabau, Delaware senior Ari Avant is a track standout who wanted to tackle a new challenge.

“I always thought it would be fun to try a contact sport,” Avant said. “At first, I thought it was cool to roughhouse with the other girls. I found out that’s it super tiring. My longest race (400 meters) is about a minute. To wrestle for six minutes is really hard. You have to be physically and mentally tough.”

Hilliard Bradley sophomore Sol Franco began freestyle wrestling five years ago in her homeland of Mexico. When her family moved here in 2018, she was excited to represent her high school.

“I first started wrestling so I could be better than my cousins,” she said. “To do this competitively at a tournament is just amazing. I want to be a state champion.”

On Feb. 22 and 23, the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association will sponsor an inaugural girls state tournament at Hilliard Davidson. The plan is for the Ohio High School Athletic Association to eventually sanction the sport and take over the event.

Girls wrestling is among the fastest-growing sports in the United States. Since 2001, participation has jumped from 3,405 to more than 17,000. Studies suggest that the inclusion of women’s wrestling as an Olympic sport in 2004 and the popularity of mixed martial arts have contributed to the surge. Sixty-three colleges ranging in size now field teams.

Due to an active push by coaches, Ohio’s numbers have more than doubled the past year.

“The OHSAA wants our numbers to grow, but that’s not going to happen with girls competing on a boys team because they have nothing to shoot for,” Olentangy Orange coach Brian Nicola said. “When the coaches association decided to hold a state girls tournament, the participation numbers practically tripled. This is the way it worked with (boys) volleyball, lacrosse and ice hockey. Hopefully, we’re next.”

Tyler Brooks, an OHSAA administrator who handles wrestling, has been monitoring the growth of girls wrestling and communicates regularly with coaches.

“The interest is definitely there,” Brooks said. “The growth to about 500 is impressive in itself. The numbers indicate that the majority of girls wrestlers are underclassmen, and we’re seeing a huge swell in the middle-school ranks as well.”

Brooks emphasized that there is no magic number, per se, for the OHSAA to recognize girls wrestling as a separate sport.

Nineteen state associations have sanctioned girls state wrestling championships, six in the past year.

Since 1938, wrestling has been considered a co-ed sport, with a handful of girls training and competing with the boys. In 2019, Olivia Shore of Casstown Miami East became the first girl to win a state tournament match. She is just the second female qualifier.

With the inception of the girls tournament, the OHSAA included an exception allowing girls to compete in both state events.

Boys and girls sharing a mat and often competing against one other is a point of contention with some. Last March, a Colorado boy chose to forfeit a state tournament match at 106 pounds rather than face a girl.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Rocky Carreker, who as East coach oversees 14 boys and six girls. “When girls wrestling started gaining popularity in the past couple years, a few guys may have come out just to be closer to the girls.

“On the other hand, some guys are a little uncomfortable or even intimidated being on the same mat with a girl. We had a guy last year who just went through the motions every time he practiced with a girl because he didn’t want to hurt her.”

Carreker, however, sees girls wrestling as the next big thing.

“The numbers suggest that the girls sport is probably going to end up outgrowing the boys,” he said. “The prevailing attitude is, ‘I want to prove that I can do anything a boy can do.’ Girls just like a challenge, and that applies from the youth level all the way up.”

In December, Olentangy Orange traveled to Miami East for the first girls dual meet in Ohio. Orange won 48-36 in a packed gymnasium. Orange has 20 wrestlers and Miami East 17.

On Saturday, the Pioneer Classic at Orange featured a girls division for the first time. Miami East (141) edged Orange (125) and Marysville (90) in the 24-team event that included 94 competitors.

Avant (131 pounds), tournament MVP Aliya Martin of Big Walnut (137), Maia Crumb of Olentangy Berlin (150) and Franco (160) were area champions.

“Make no mistake about it, the girls wrestling movement is legitimate,” said Nicola, who previously coached at West and Ready. “It’s growing faster than any other sport nationwide, and it’s not even close.”

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By Steve Blackledge

The Columbus Dispatch