What’s Next for Girls Wrestling in Illinois?
IWOCA Feature Story By Gary Larsen
The high school wrestling community is ready for it, from coaches to officials and from parents to athletes.
An IHSA girls wrestling state tournament is on the horizon. It’s merely the logistics of how, where, and when that remain.
“It’s important to the IHSA that they do it right, and I understand that,” IWCOA Executive Board Member Colleen McGlynn said. “They have a plan for the state tournament but they don’t have a plan for how to qualify girls yet.”
An IHSA girls wrestling advisory committee will meet in January, to draw up the next step in the process. That process can’t happen fast enough for the more than 800 girls state-wide that now wrestle at the high school level.
The Illinois High School Holiday Open that took place on Dec. 23 saw more than 150 girls of all ages compete at Niles West. The event was sponsored by the IWCOA, which has thrown its weight behind the move to take girls’ high school wrestling to the next level.
“Their connection to the IHSA is invaluable and the IWCOA is the organization to help us move this forward,” McGlynn said. “I know they have the ear of the IHSA.”
For the IWCOA, it wasn’t a difficult decision to arrive at.
“If you look at our mission, our charter, it’s to support and grow and promote wrestling at all levels, primarily at the high school level,” IWCOA president Nate Kessen said. “That’s our mission, so for us it was kind of a no-brainer to get behind this and push it forward.”
Girls have long competed on boys’ high school teams in Illinois, but the nation-wide movement towards the creation of girls-only sanctioned competition is now a locomotive roaring down the tracks.
Eighteen states currently sanction girls’ wrestling at the high school level, including California, Texas, and Washington.
The key component towards growing the sport at the high school level in Illinois is the formation of a sanctioned state tournament. And as the saying goes: if you build it, they will come.
McGlynn just hopes it gets built sooner than later.
“Once you offer a state series and a state tournament, teams will start building. We already have teams building,” McGlynn said. “We already have schools with twelve, thirteen, fourteen girls on a team and they’re initiating dual competition.”
Downers Grove South and Oak Park and River Forest have two growing girls programs that squared off in a dual meet under the spotlight this season.
Dual meets will remain essentially informal events for now, but teams are gearing up for the future.
“Last year we had a smaller roster but this year we’re almost filling a whole lineup,” DG South coach Vince Liebich said. “It was really awesome and I was super pumped to see the girls wrestle under the lights like that. I think the more fun they have, the more people are going to see that, and the more girls that will want to be a part of it.”
A sanctioned state tournament will help that cause. McGlynn will again be involved in helping organize the annual girls’ state tournament in Springfield in March of 2020. But the event is not sanctioned by the IHSA and takes place nearly three weeks after the boys’ state finals in Champaign.
By that time, many girls who wrestle on boys’ teams have stopped training or moved on to their spring activities.
“We get a couple hundred girls to show up but you have eight hundred girls certify and ninety percent of those girls are done wrestling at the end of January,” McGlynn said. “We’re asking those girls to hold on until March to wrestle in a state tournament, and that’s why we have so much attrition.”
Boys programs will continue to see more and more girls join wrestling as the IHSA sorts out specifics and logistics. Niles West coach Anthony Genovesi had six girls wrestling in his program last year and that number increased to 10 this season.
Genovesi was happy to see the large number of girls competing at this year’s Holiday Open.
“If boys can learn from the sport, why can’t girls learn from it?” Genovesi said. “I have three young daughters that I brought here today. I don’t know if they’ll wrestle, but I want to at least show them that there’s another opportunity out there for them.”
One of the referees working the event in Niles was Grace Kristoff, the 2018 NWHOF Illinois Chapter Tricia Saunders Award Winner (pictured) who wrestled on the boys’ team at Belleville-Althoff and now wrestles at McKendree College.
Mary Kelly, Cassie Inman, Caitlyn Chase, and Haley Augello are just a few of the trailblazing Illinois wrestlers from years past who can relate to the odyssey that Kristoff similarly followed as a teenager.
As a lower-weight high school freshman, Kristoff held her own but by the time she became an upperclassmen, wrestling closer to 150 pounds, the task grew exponentially tougher.
“Those were men I was wrestling and I got whomped on,” Kristoff said. “It was terrible.”
Kristoff sees a better future for female high school wrestlers once the sport becomes a bona fide, sanctioned IHSA sport. Organizations like the IKWF and ILUSA are fostering girls’ involvement, which would also likely increase.
“I think they’ll get a lot more experience, you’ll have less kids quitting, and more girls participating and wanting to join,” Kristoff said.
Vernon Hills junior Magdalena Zucek placed third at 138 pounds in the Novice Division at Niles West, and she believes that once wrestling is sanctioned, perceptions can only change for the better.
“It’s empowering,” Zucek said. “It makes girls sports more relevant. When you think about wrestling, you think about guys wrestling but now that it’s on the girls’ horizon it’s going to give people a different perspective on girls’ and boys’ sports, and how they really aren’t that different. It makes it more credible for us.”
Vernon Hills coach Jerry Micelli was present at Niles West to coach Zucek and Kylie Schuldt, who placed second at 113 in the Elite Division.
Both girls wrestle on Micelli’s boys’ team at Vernon Hills. His opinion is clear on the subject of girls’ growth into the sport.
“I love it,” Micelli said. “I think it’s good for the sport and it’s about time. Our culture is changing and I think it’s pretty cool.”