Jewel Gonzalez, of Phillipsburg, celebrates a win in the 161-pound final of the NJSIAA Girls State Wrestling Championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., in March. Illinois joins New Jersey and 24 other states to approve girls wrestling.

The popularity of girls wrestling has continued to grow during the past few years, and the Illinois High School Association finally has begun to take notice.

Last week, the IHSA announced it would host a state tournament series for girl wrestlers that will take effect beginning in the 2021-22 academic year. Girls have had to wrestle boys during the IHSA winter season.

“It’s definitely exciting for the opportunity to have something at the end of the season that’s sanctioned just like the other sports in the IHSA,” Central wrestling coach Travis Williams said. “I’d say within the last 10 years, there’s been a huge change and shift in the acceptance of girls wrestling. I think it’s filtered down from the Olympic and international level to the college level, and now we are starting to see it as another option for girls, and it’s not the stigma that it might have been 10 years ago.”

Illinois is the 26th state to approve girls wrestling, joining Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington.

“It’s about time. I did not think Illinois would lag so behind,” Coal City wrestling coach Mark Masters said. “I was really surprised. I know our Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association really pushed for the IHSA to get this done ASAP.”

According to the IHSA meeting minutes from the June 15 meeting, the number of girls participating in wrestling in Illinois has about doubled in the past year, going from 424 two years ago to 837 in 2019-20.

“We are starting to see that shift for that competitiveness where there’s a lot more school-sponsored tournaments; there’s a lot more, dual-wise, teams that will bring girls — if we know we have some then they’ll bring some …,” Williams said. “There’s still a little bit of that intermixing, and that’s what we are curious to find out — if there still will be as much guy-girl wrestling on the mat. But the idea that girls are starting to see others do it and that comfort in numbers is a little bit more of a push to join in.”

Last season, Central only had one female wrestler by the end of the season, Maggie Thorne, who grew up around the sport because of her older brothers. She’s been wrestling for Central’s team for the past two years and plans to continue doing so until her high school career is over.

If Thorne can produce well enough, she might even get a chance to compete in the first IHSA girls wrestling tournament in her senior year.

“It’s pretty awesome because it’s not like we’ve been in the shadows, but we have kind of been overlooked a little bit with like girl’s power and what we can actually do,” Thorne said. “Like we can beat guys if we want to and put our minds to it, we really can.”

Thorne knows it can be difficult to convince other girls to sign up, especially when they traditionally have to go up against boys almost every time. However, with the recent news, she believes more girls will become interested in the opportunity.

“I think this will only increase girls’ wrestling participation,” Thorne said. “My freshman year, there was another girl on the team with me, and it was kind of hard this past year. I didn’t really have another girl on the team with me, which I’m fine with just the guys by myself, but I think once girls see that it’s not just all guys and you don’t just have to wrestle all guys, I think other girls would be more interested.”

Masters said he also believes this is the perfect opportunity for girls to show they are just as tough as the boys.

“It’s brand new; I think there’s always that ‘fight like a girl’ or ‘compete like a girl,’” Masters said. “They get tired of that. They want to be accepted as an equal. … This is just another opportunity for them to show girls are just as tough as boys.”

Coal City has two girls on its roster, and there are about five or six more girls in the kid’s club. Through good promotion, Masters believes those numbers can continue to grow.

“We got some young girl wrestlers in our kids’ club involved and a couple girl wrestlers at the high school level that are involved, so hopefully those numbers can grow through promoting it,” Master said. “Maybe we can get a solid girls team that’s as competitive as our boys team. Maybe they can win a state title since we can do it with all the second-place finishes we get.”

No date or location has been given for the state tournament, but it was proposed to be held at the State Farm Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Perhaps the move will replace the nonsanctioned girls state tournament that began taking place in 2017 by the IWCOA.

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