Girls wrestling is on the way in New York State and the Niagara Frontier League is entering on the ground floor.
NYSPHSAA classified girls wrestling as an emerging sport during its summer meeting last week after meeting the minimum of four teams in four sections statewide. A team combined team of NFL wrestlers, structured like the Niagara County girls hockey co-op, is on track to be one of the teams slated to compete in Section VI.
Which NFL schools will be involved and the details of the inaugural season are still in flux. Concrete plans are unlikely to be made until after school boards begin to meet this month and next, while a committee formed by NYSPHSAA plans to make recommendations on rules at an September meeting, but rising interest in the sport has gotten discussions started.
More than 300 girls wrestled for high schools throughout the state and 33,000 females wrestled nationwide, according to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, while New York held its third girls wrestling state invitational tournament this season.
“As an athletic director, you see when sports are changing,” Lewiston-Porter athletic director Brad Halgash said. “… As our girls we currently have in our wrestling program came up through the ranks, as more girls tournaments were happening, they wanted to be more part of that. This is another step in supporting what drives them to be wrestlers.”
Discussions at the state level began more than two years ago, but New York is behind most of the country. More than 30 states have already sanctioned girls wrestling, while schools have competed in New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League as a spring sport for the last half-decade.
NYSPHSAA assistant director Todd Nelson was placed on a task force for USA Wrestling, headed by Kyra Barry, who is the team leader of the the United States women’s national team. That task force has since been working to see if girls wrestling would be viable and what it might look like.
Girls have been wrestling in youth organizations for decades and it became an Olympic sport in 2004, but Nelson noted many girls who wrestle prior to high school do not continue because their school does not have a girls-only team.
Lew-Port, Lockport and North Tonawanda were among schools who had a female regularly in the varsity lineup. Several girls have found success wrestling against boys, including Lockport’s Maleah McKinney-Updegraph, who placed third at the Class AA sectional tournament.
Lancaster’s Trista Blasz also secured the championship-clinching win in the Division 1 sectional dual championships. But aside from cases like Fredonia’s Carlene Sluberski — now the women’s wrestling coach at Eastern Oregon University — who took second at 96 pounds in the 2009 state tournament, success at the highest section and state levels have been sparse.
North Tonawanda coach Wally Maziarz has been a vocal advocate for girls wrestling after having a consistent female presence on the roster during his tenure. He believes a girls-only squad would also help with development. The Lumberjacks had three females on the varsity roster and they had success in practice and duals, but it was more difficult at invitationals.
Meanwhile, Lew-Port’s Meghan Edwards won a girls state championship this season, while North Tonawanda’s Brenna and Hanna McCarley represented New York at the U.S. Marine Corps junior and 16U nationals in July in Fargo, North Dakota.
“When you’re not winning or competing, it takes the fun out of it a little bit,” Maziarz said. “So you’ll see girls drop off and go on to something else. The UFC women’s division, those girls are tough as nails. We’ve got girls who are tough as nails, too, and hopefully this will help bring those girls out a little bit.”
More all-girls wrestling tournaments have been sprouting up in Western New York recently, with a handful this year, including the first ever at North Tonawanda in December.
The first all-girls state invitational held in 2019 drew 41 wrestlers and this year’s brought 42. But the first state-sanctioned girls-only championship Colorado brought 80 wrestlers from 42 schools in 2017 and jumped to more than 200 from 114 schools in 2018.
“We keep telling our schools we’re going to have an explosion,” Nelson said. “Once we get to the point where we are right now, it’s going to take off like wildfire.”
Not only will girls wrestling spread quickly, Nelson says, but the surge has the power to last. Girls flag football was also elevated to emerging status for the upcoming school year, but the initial pilot program was funded through grants from the Buffalo Bills, New York Giants and Jets.
Wrestling, however, was bred through youth programs, participation numbers and pure interest, growing at a consistent 14% yearly rate, according to the Center for Critical Sport Studies.
Although there are no certainties at the moment, Nelson does not anticipate the upcoming season being torpedoed by schools backing out. So there is optimism there will be enough growth shortly to make a championship sport in the state, which requires four teams from six sections.
“We feel there’s many other students who would like to participate in some things, but either don’t have the talent or numbers dictate they’re not good enough to make it,” Nelson said. “… We don’t have many other sports (in the winter) that are going to be saturated like in the fall season. In the fall, we’re very much saturated with sports, that’s why we offer girls flag football in the spring.”
Interest in girls wrestling also comes at a time when the sport as a whole is blossoming. NYSPHSAA data showed the state wrestling tournament had the highest attendance of any state championship event in 2019 and the 12,096 fans who came this year trailed only football.
More than 100 colleges also offer girls wrestling as a sport, which makes coaches like Lockport’s Bill Morello, who has four daughters, excited for the future of the sport.
“It’s absolutely amazing that these girls have this opportunity to compete,” Morello said. “I have four girls and three of them are pretty feisty. Just because you’re a girl, doesn’t mean you can’t compete. They want to compete just as much as the boys do.”