Following two years of continued interest and growth, the Arizona Interscholastic Association announced that it would officially be recognizing girls wrestling as a team sport. The news comes after the AIA’s latest executive meeting in April, where the move was passed with a unanimous vote.
“This is absolutely awesome for our sport, and a long time coming,” Liberty High School head wrestling coach Eric Brenton said.
During the 2018-2019 school year, the AIA took large strides towards changing the wrestling world when it announced the addition of girls wrestling as an emerging sport. As an emerging sport, schools didn’t have a designated girls team to schedule meets against, but would provide the opportunity for them to compete against other girls at tournaments.
For years, boys wrestling numbers had been down, but AIA executive director David Hines said the hope was that the addition of girls wrestling would help spark a new interest and create a resurgence in the sport.
And just as he had hoped, that is exactly the trend that not only happened in Arizona, but across the nation.
Wrestling has been the fastest-growing women’s sport for the last three decades. Participation numbers skyrocketed over the years, spanning from only 112 girls competing at the high school level across the entire United States in 1990 to more than 21,100 during the 2018-2019 school year.
In Arizona alone, participation grew from about 224 girls at the 2019 sectionals to 435 in 2020.
Alaska, California, Hawaii, Texas, Tennessee and Washington offered or were in the process of adding girls wrestling as a high school sport before Arizona got on board back in 2018. Since then, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey and Oregon are just some of the states that have decided to follow suit, more than doubling the number of states.
The news of girls wrestling becoming an official sport in Arizona is not only a pivotal moment for the student-athletes, but for the coaches, too. Both Dave DiDomenico of Mesa High School and Michael Garcia of Basha High School had submitted proposals in the past to get wrestling recognized as an official sport at different points in time. The addition is something they feel would not have happened without a push from the coaches and community showing the interest is there.
“Since the addition of Girls wrestling we’ve added a new fan base that will help to grow our sport. I’ve been approached by many new fans such as parents, teachers and students who, because of the Girls program, have been introduced to wrestling and now love it,” Garcia said.
It’s something Coach Brenton agreed on. “I have always been a major advocate of growing our numbers in the sport by introducing and maintaining as many people as possible in the sport even if they aren’t a state champion,” he said.
Females were far less likely to compete in the sport in years past, especially at the high school level, because of the intimidation factor that comes along with it. Not only is wrestling a predominantly male sport, it’s also one of the most challenging sports physically there is. Creating an opportunity for the girls to compete against each other provides a more even playing field for the athletes.
It’s what Coach DiDomenico thinks will be the main factor in driving the continuous growth of the sport for years to come.
“The purpose of high school sports is to be a vehicle to help mold young people with the tools into believing they can change their corner of the world. Sanctioning girls wrestling and offering those girls a valid school wrestling program now increases the attractiveness for them to become involved,” DiDomenico said.
But it’s not just the competition factor that comes into the equation when examining what will help girls wrestling grow. The experience, team atmosphere and numerous other intangibles all come into the equation.
“They will go out for the team because of their friends. They will go out for the team to challenge themselves. They will go out for curiosity and exploration of the sport. They will go out for the teams for belongingness. All in all, they will go out for the team. Numbers will continue to rise like no other high school sport out there,” DiDomenico said.
While the AIA will not meet to discuss girls wrestling again until Aug. 17, here’s what has already been established. Girls wrestling will continue to compete within a single division no matter the size of the school, as opposed to the four divisions for boys. The state will be split into eight different sections, and women will have the opportunity to compete in ten different weight classes.
Brenton, who has coached Liberty to back-to-back state championship titles for the boys, is looking forward to see how this changes the level of competition out on the mats.
“Adding it as a team sport and giving a state trophy away becomes a game changer as athletes compete for the ultimate prize,” Brenton said.