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More than 100 wrestlers participated Saturday in a multi-team wrestling meet hosted by Jefferson Middle School. A large portion of the wrestling pool consisted of female athletes, which continues the trend of women’s wrestling as the fastest growing female sport in the U.S.
P-J photo by Christopher Blakeslee

Women wrestling is the fastest growing female sport in the U.S. according to the National Federation of State High School Association.

The trend is apparent locally as more schools, colleges and universities continue to add women’s wrestling programs.

“I can’t believe how many girls are at this tournament,” said Joel Sopak, the head wrestling coach for Washington Middle School and a sixth grade teacher, after a recent middle school wrestling tournament. “This is a good thing; it means our sport is healthy and thriving.”

The tournament Sopak was speaking about was held at Jefferson Middle School this past Saturday, and hosted 14 teams with more than 110 wrestlers competing, and a rather large chunk – as compared to years before – composed of female grapplers.

“I’m not sure how many girls are in this pool of wrestlers,” said Eric Sohl, Jefferson Middle School’s wrestling coach and teacher. “Each year we see more and more girls hitting the mats. The girls not only compete against other girls, but the males as well. But this is the most girls I’ve seen in one tournament.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that the Wrestling Rules Committee has established separate weight classes, effective with the 2023-24 season for girls wrestling. The sport’s past five years of growth in participants and championships is greater than any other women’s sports team. The NFHS is reporting that girls’ participation in wrestling climbed nationally from 4,975 participants in 2005 to 7,351 in 2010. The most recent NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey revealed participation almost tripled by 2018-19 with 21,124 girl participants.

As many as 28,447 participated during the 2019-20 season, according to data collected from the National Wrestling Coaches Association and state high school associations by the USA Wrestling Girls High School Development Committee.Locally and statewide, several schools are looking to or considering fielding all-girl wrestling teams. Moreover, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association is set to host the first-ever Girls Wrestling Individual Tournament at SRC Arena on the campus of Onondaga Community College on Friday, Jan. 27. NYSPHSAA will bring together 208 girls from its member schools around the state to compete in 13 weight classes. Each weight class will consist of 16 girls wrestling through to an individual championship or competing in wrestling backs to sixth place.

Currently, 11 sections in the NYSPHSAA membership have girls participating in wrestling, six of which have all-girls teams within their sections, thus, creating a state championship on equal and par with their male counterparts.

“This is an exciting time for us as we host our first formal event for only girls’ wrestlers to compete in a statewide invitational tournament,” said Dr. Robert Zayas, NYSPHSAA’s executive director.

Locally, support is high.

“It is awesome to see the involvement of girls in wrestling. Just over the past two-years, locally, the amount of girls wrestling has exploded. From my personal experience at Washington, our girls are passionate about improving, they work extremely hard and are terrific teammates,” Sopak said. ” I believe girls wrestling (Teams) is imminent and I can’t wait.”

Chautauqua Lake was one of three female wrestling varsity teams in New York state and the only girls-only team in Section VI. Now there are over 35 girls wrestling programs across the state, with four teams in Section VI, including two in Chautauqua County this year.

Joining Chautauqua Lake this season is Fredonia, which adds to a list that includes Orchard Park and a Niagara-Frontier League team in Section VI. Moreover, several other local school districts are in the works to add all-girl wrestling programs.

Asked about adding an all-girls wrestling squad to Jamestown High School, Ben Drake, the athletic director said, it will all depend on how much interest there is from students.

“We’ve put it out there before, but once the girl wrestlers graduate middle school their interest seems to wane. If there’s an interest in an all-girls team, we’d definitely look into it, but there hasn’t been,” Drake said. “Our flagship programs are still our football and basketball teams, but I know girls wrestling is growing fast nationwide.”

Olivia Little, an eighth grader and school wrestler said, “I come from a family of wrestlers, my brother wrestles for JHS. I’m planning on competing at the high school with my brother.”

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