Article Source Written By: By Stan Morris of the Peoria Journal Star Posted Dec 25, 2019 at 8:00 AM
The Richwoods wrestling room looks a little different than your average area high school wrestling room.
That’s because nearly a third of the athletes in the room are girls.
A dedicated commitment to recruiting females, those not in other sports in the winter or not in any sport at all, has paid off for head coach Rob Penney and his Knights.
A roster of 50 athletes includes 16 girls.
“We’ve had girls wrestling at Richwoods for years,” Penny said. “We’ve been pretty progressive all along, we’re just in a situation now where the (Illinois High School Association) is looking seriously at making it a sport. I’m just hoping to hit the ground running.”
Girls wrestling is considered an “emerging sport” by the IHSA. According to Oak Park-River Forest girls coach Fred Arkin, 641 girls were certified last year by the IHSA to participate in wrestling, a number up from 433 in 2017.
Richwoods is one of 54 schools registered with the IHSA — along with Metamora and Pekin among metro-area schools — as participating in the emerging sport of girls wrestling.
“It’s been a rewarding experience,” Penny said. “The girls are hard-nosed, they listen well. They remember moves faster than the boys sometimes, they work harder than the boys sometimes.”
Of the 16 girls on the team, junior Maria Lopez is the only returning female wrestler. She “fell in love with (wrestling) the first week” after picking up the sport last season.
She was also part of a promotional video put together at the end of last year by videographer Chris Nash. The video showed a wrestler making some moves, only to reveal at the end that the wrestler was a girl.
“Clearly, it worked,” Lopez said. “It was a big eye-opener that, ‘Whoa, a girl can do this,’ That showed a lot of women at the school that wrestling isn’t just for boys, and I can be aggressive, too, and I can channel that aggression into a sport.”
Two other big recruiters were freshmen Kyley Bair and Katlyn Boone. Both Bair and Boone earned fourth-place medals in their respective weight classes as eighth graders competing in the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation girls state tournament.
“No one was expecting that,” Bair said of so many girls joining the team. “We were expecting like five, but then to see the next 10 come in we were like, ‘Whoa, that’s really crazy to see that many.’”
Lopez noted the influx of girls is not just for show, or because of peer pressure.
“The girls on the team are like, ‘Show me that again. How do I do that? I want to do that again,’” Lopez said. “Just repetition. They actually want to be involved. They don’t do it for the look, to say they’re wrestlers. They do it because this is where they want to be and want to show they can be aggressive as well.”
Boone, who was encouraged to start wrestling by Bair, has noticed the improvement and staying power of the girls out for the first time.
“I like to see everyone grow with the program, to see everyone who has stuck with it so far,” she said.
And the reaction of the boys on the team?
“We get along great,” Lopez said. “It’s never, ‘Oh, she’s a girl.’ They know that we put up a fight, too. They have more muscle, but we have brains, we have skills.”
Match time has been limited so far for most of the girls. But Richwoods will get its first chance to compete in an all girls formated tournament this weekend at the Ottawa Invitational.
“That’s crazy exciting, because a lot of times we don’t get many matches in because some schools don’t want to wrestle girls,” Lopez said. “An all girls tournament is going to be very good for us, so that we can all get as much mat time as we can against female wrestlers. You’re going to go a lot harder against them as well, because it’s not boy-girl so nobody is going to be holding back.”
Bair is also excited about the possibilities at Ottawa.
“To already have our first girls tournament is super cool,” she said. “It’s really exciting to see how much these girls have grown, just in the past couple weeks. It’s going to be a big eye-opener for everyone.”
Richwoods will take 14 girls this weekend in 10 different weight classes.
“I think the girls are going to surprise some people when they get to some tournaments,” Penney said. “They’re pretty tough.”
The girls will compete in two regular-season tournaments next year. This year, they’ll also compete in the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association girls state series.
“This is almost pre-season for them, to get them geared up for the big tournament at the end,” Penny said.
Girls wrestling as an official IHSA sport may still be a few years away, but Richwoods has a good head start.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing where this thing goes,” Penney said. “Bigger picture is a quality varsity girls team traveling around the state exactly when the boys are doing the same thing and winning duals and winning tournaments. That’s the end goal. Right now, it’s just building the sport.”