The parents of Penn’s girls wrestling team were screaming, cheering and high-fiving. They were giving their kids the same pointers and words of encouragement any other parent would. And in the background legendary wrestler and current varsity coach Brad Harper was there for support of his team.
This all took place last Friday night at the Indiana Girls’ Wrestling State Finals at Hamilton Heights where there were only two differences from the boys’ state finals that will take place in February.
The noticeable one was the wrestlers had to put their hair back before each match — the quality of wrestling on the mat though? Much closer to boys than you might think.
The one that many don’t realize is who was running the tournament.
And hats off to Gary Myers at Hamilton Heights. He helped start this tournament five years ago and its success means one thing: It’s time for the Indiana High School Athletic Association to adopt girls wrestling as a varsity sanctioned sport.
Myers and his tournament helpers have branded the tournament, which starts with two regionals before convening for the state finals with eight wrestlers per bracket spread across 14 weight classes, to model that of the IHSAA state tournament held in February. There was a parade of champions before the meet, a face-off before the finals, and the lights in the balcony dimmed for the attention of the entire crowd to be on the center mat for all 14 finals matches, which last Friday included North Montgomery’s Cailin and Catie Campbell each winning their second state titles.
Sanctioning new sports doesn’t happen over night, but the IHSAA has been a pioneer in sanctioning Unified Sports, first track and field in 2013-14 and recently adding flag football in 2018-19. Unified Sports is an integral part of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, which was founded in 2008.
Before that, the most recent adoption of a sport by the Indiana High School Athletic Association came when they sanctioned boys and girls soccer in 1994-95. The IHSAA first sanctioned girls’ sports in the early 1970s.
Hawaii was the first state to sanction high school girls wrestling in 1998, and prior to 2018 there were just six states that did — Alaska (2014), California (2011), Hawaii, Tennessee (2014), Texas (1999), and Washington (2007). At of the start of the 2020-21 school year, there were 28 states that sanctioned the sport, but Indiana is not one of them.
In the summer of 2020, the NCAA announced women’s wrestling would be added to the NCAA’s Emerging Sports for Women in Division I. Presbyterian College in South Carolina is currently the only Division I women’s wrestling program, while there are 35 NCAA schools currently sponsoring the sport. Since the Emerging Sports for Women program was established in 1994, five sports have earned NCAA championship status, including rowing, women’s ice hockey, women’s water polo, bowling, and most recently women’s beach volleyball.
Indiana Tech, located in Fort Wayne, adopted women’s wreslting as a varsity sport this school year. The Warriors athletic department is a member school of the NAIA, which is the only intercollegiate athletics association to sponsor women’s wrestling.
On the surface, lacrosse and boys volleybal might be the most intriguing sports for the IHSAA to consider next, but I think girls wrestling should be the focus.
In 2018-19 there were 115 Indiana high schools that had girls participating in wrestling, for a total of 259 participants. There is huge room for growth within the sport, and pioneers in the sport like Myers are to thank for that — now it’s time for the IHSAA to seriously consider adding it as a sport.
Jared McMurry was born and raised in Montgomery County and is the Sports Editor of the Journal Review. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and by phone at 765-918-8656. Follow him on Twitter @jaredmac26